I am a lover of hip hop. I fell in love with the music form when I was 10, and I’ve never been the same since. As a child and a teenager, when I wasn’t in class or asleep, I was listening to my favorite rappers. I hung on their every word, and they had a lot to say. Most rappers don’t intend to be teachers, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t learning. I listened closely to their ideas about the good life—and I liked what I heard.
With albums in my CD player such as Get Rich or Die Trying, are you surprised my idea of the good life was having a wallet so stuffed it wouldn’t even close? It wasn’t all about money, though. I can’t forget the lessons I learned about status (chase it), women (chase them), and happiness (chase it by chasing the first two).
Don’t get me wrong, though. Hip hop music was not the problem; sinful lies were. The rest of the culture told me those exact same lies in a more subtle fashion. And my self-centered, glory-hungry heart ate them up. All of us live by faith, and sadly, I believed the lies of the enemy over the truth of God. But when I was still a teenager I met Jesus, and what I heard from Him challenged every idea I had about the good life.
I remember being puzzled by something I read in Philippians for the first time. Paul spoke about death in a peculiar way. At the time, I’d heard many quotes about death. I’d heard it said that death is certain, and even that death should be accepted, but the Apostle Paul took it a step further. He said, “to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Death is when your brain, your heart, and your lungs stop doing their job. Death means you’re separated from family and that your life work is over. Unlike our other trials, death is, for the deceased, literally “the end of the world”—the end of this one anyway. So how could death possibly be gain? It just didn’t fit with my old views of the good life.
In order for us to understand what Paul meant by these four words, to die is gain, we have to understand the four that came right before them. In Philippians 1, Paul explains why he seems to be okay with either staying alive or dying at the hands of his persecutors. He writes in verse 21, “to live is Christ” (emphasis mine). With those words, the apostle told me what life is really all about—Jesus. How could my self-centered, status-obsessed worldview survive next to that truth?
To live is not wealth. To live is not worldly success. To live is not sex. To live is not family. To live is Christ. We were created by Jesus and for Jesus, the merciful Savior who stood in our place and offers us new life. Jesus is our mediator before the Father, the motivation for all our decisions, and the driving force behind our every move. It’s all about Jesus. There is no good life apart from Jesus, because without Jesus life has no meaning.
This is why Paul could say, “to die is gain.” Whether he died or lived, Jesus would be honored. Life meant he got to serve Jesus and death meant he would get to be with Jesus—and there’s nowhere he would have rather been (v. 23). We can learn from Paul here. The truth is, it’s better to be dirt poor in the presence of Jesus than to be filthy rich in the presence of men.
Even though Paul was imprisoned and suffering when he wrote this, he was living an abundant life. He was living a satisfying life. He was living the good life. After reading those words as a teenager, I could no longer see the good life as just living it up. I began to see the good life as a life renewed by Jesus, driven by Jesus, and lived to the glory of Jesus.
There are many differences between the picture of the good life I learned from Paul and the picture I learned from the culture. But one of the biggest differences is how we get there. The world sells us a “good life” we have to earn. Yet this life remains out of reach even for some of those who work the hardest to achieve it. The biblical picture of “the good life” is different. It’s a free gift that’s available to all who believe. In John 11:25, Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” That is good news.
As long as I believed the lies the culture told me, I wasn’t living the good life. But when I began to live by faith in the good God, my good life began. The man who lives for himself gains nothing lasting in this life, and he will only experience devastating loss in the next. But the man who lives for Christ gets a taste of the good life now, and his death only brings him what he desires most.