When is penultimate pleasure a better choice than ultimate pleasure? If given the choice between something far superior and a relatively inferior alternative, when is it good to choose the inferior?
Not many things come to mind for me. It seems we’re wired to always choose the superior thing. After all, it’s “superior.”
The Apostle Paul faced a choice of this nature, a choice between something “better by far” and what might be called an inferior but good alternative. He writes in Philippians 2:18:26—
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
After telling his readers that he rejoiced whether Christ was preached out of false motives or true as long as Christ was preached, the Apostle then writes that he will continue to rejoice because of the deliverance he expects. Shackled and imprisoned, the Apostle faces the future with confidence that Christ will be exalted whether he lives or dies and that he will not be ashamed. “For to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
And there is the dilemma. Here is where the Apostle is torn and pulled between two poles, one superior and the other a good inferior. Departing to be with Christ “is better by far.”
I wonder how often we meditate on that truth. How often do we consider the “better by far” wonder of being with Christ? Is that Day consistently before us? Is that expectation strong and compelling, or is it stacked in a corner with other Christmas goodies we played with for a day only to abandon and forget when the next toy was unwrapped?
The Apostle finds Christ far better than anything on this earth. And so should we. And yet, he goes on to write that it was necessary for others that he should remain for their “progress and joy in the faith.” Paul expected that his being with the Philippians again would lead to their overflowing joy in Christ Jesus.
Here, then, might be the only time where a good inferior alternative may be desired over the far better, superior choice—when others also will enter into the far better life with Christ.
It’s quite likely that the Apostle found great happiness in seeing the Philippians’ progress and joy in Christ. This is one of the surprising sources of joy in the pastoral ministry—recognizing that the hardships, if we don’t faint, lead to the blessing of God’s people. By God’s grace, we may live through tumultuous and difficult times to see the glorious goodness of it all worked by the hand of God. We have the privilege of working for our people’s joy and growth in Christ, an overflowing joy “on account of” the pastor. That God is pleased to use vessels of dust to work such treasure is a great privilege. And though it would be far better to be with Christ, how tremendous a reunion will it be when we all get to heaven and the pastor and his people acknowledge before Christ that the pastor was used to fit them for that Day.
Are we facing hardships? Imprisonment? Opposition from within and without?
Are we tempted to think it would be better by far if we were to lay down this earthly tabernacle and be clothed with the heavenly one? Without doubt we are correct to think that the heavenly dress is better than the earthly.
And yet, in God’s kindness to his ministers, the good inferior choice of laboring for the joy and progress of His people is rewarded with joy in this life as we see Christian maturity unfold and rewarded eternally when stand with our people before our King and really rejoice!
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