Tony, a pastor, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I have heard you use Philippians 1 as a text showing evidence for Christian Hedonism. But in reading it recently, I felt I could see reason for denying Christian Hedonism as well. In verse 23 Paul says it is ‘far better’ to be with Christ in death. And yet he remains in the flesh to minister to the Philippians because ‘it is more necessary on your account.’ Wouldn’t it seem here that if Paul chose a lesser joy (staying on earth) to love others, it would deny that the path of loving others is also the pursuit of highest joy in God?”
That is a really sharp question. Let me read the text to make sure we can see it is a good question, and it caused me to think hard, and I thank Tony for it. Philippians 1:21–26:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. . . .
So the contrast is between my gain and fruitful labor.
Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. . . .
So the contrast is between far better right now for Paul in heaven versus more needed for the Philippians’ faith.
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. . . .
Now, Tony asks, “Wouldn’t it seem here that Paul chooses a lesser joy — staying on the earth — in order to love others, which would deny, then, if he did that, that the path of loving others is a pursuit of his highest joy in God? And if that is true, then he is saying Christian Hedonism principles don’t hold. So that is very, very good, good question.
Here is my answer: Paul did not say staying on earth is a lesser joy in the long run. And if you asked him, “Do you think that staying on earth and serving the faith and the joy of the Philippians would bring you even greater joy with Christ in the age to come?” I think he would say yes. Because he says in verse 26 that he is laboring for their faith so that in me “you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus.” In other words, he shares in that glory because of working for them. His work for them is self-denial in one sense, but it is a participation in another sense. So that is why, I think, he says in Philippians 2:17,
Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.
So in Paul’s mind his staying on the earth and serving the joy and faith of the Philippians is a compounding of his joy in Christ in the long run.
Consistent Christian Hedonism
So then the question remains: Well, was he not talking then like a Christian Hedonist when he said in verse 21 that death would be gain? And in verse 23 that he desires to depart and be with Christ? If staying here and serving the church is compounding his long-term joy, is he then choosing a lesser joy in wanting to go to heaven?
And I think the answer is that Paul was not measuring his presence with Christ now against his presence with Christ later after more years of ministry. Rather, he was measuring his presence with Christ now against sitting in jail in Rome. In other words, he was saying, “That would be far better than sitting here in jail in Rome. He wasn’t thinking in terms of contrasting: “Well, what I am really choosing between is I would rather go to heaven now and be with Christ than to have, in ten years from now, multiple joys in heaven with Christ because of all these people that are going to be built up in the faith.” I don’t think he was thinking that way.
So two different possibilities were in his mind: Going to be with Christ is best right now. Measured against long-term possibilities, staying to advance the faith of the Philippians is best for them. That is how I work out the issue and think Paul is acting like a consistent Christian Hedonist.