For centuries, Christian martyrs have faced a basic question: Is faithfulness to God more precious than life? Martyrs have been told that their lives could be spared if they will but recant their faith. No doubt, in the pressure of the moment, many have found themselves, like Peter, denying Jesus. Many others, however, have paid the ultimate price, counting faithfulness to Christ—indeed, counting his faithful love to them—as more precious than life.
Psalm 63 opens with David expressing a deep thirst for the Lord. As he found himself in the physical wilderness of Judah (see superscription) he also found himself in a spiritual wilderness, thirsting for communion with his God. But it is to v. 3 that I wish to draw our attention in this brief devotional consideration: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”
We can appreciate the faith of a man of God who counts God’s covenant love more precious than life. The Bible is replete with examples of such individuals. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would rather die than worship Babylon’s gods. Daniel chose the lion’s den rather than neglect his devotion to God. Esther committed that she would perish, if necessary, in order to do what was required to identify with God’s people. The writer to the Hebrews summarises:
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
For these believers, and many others besides them, knowing God and his covenant love was more satisfying than life itself. They understood the teaching of Jesus that only those willing to lose their lives will experience real life (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24).
Has the relative comfort of Christianity in the West robbed us of this satisfaction? Do we perhaps cling too tightly onto life because we’ve become accustomed to comfort and ease? Can we really cry, with David, that God’s lovingkindness is better than life itself?
Early on in the pandemic, many noted that the Christian response to the threat looked very different to how it looked in previous generations. In previous generations, Christians were frequently on the frontlines, risking their very lives in order to minister mercy, and the gospel, to those who were suffering and dying. During the bubonic plague of the 1300s, one chronicler wrote that Christians “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” When the plague took some, others rose to take their place. In the year 165, a plague broke out in the Roman Empire that resulted in the death of an estimated quarter of the population. So fearful were people that, at the first sign of symptoms, citizens would cast their own relatives into the streets to die. It was Christians who came alongside the suffering to minister to them.
For now, the worst of the fear seems to be behind us, though history suggests that we should expect second and third waves. A worthwhile question to ask, both of yourself and of the broader Christian community, is, has our response exemplified Psalm 63:3? Have we displayed with our words and our actions that God’s lovingkindness is better to us than life? Or have we clung so tenaciously to life in the here and now that we have failed to show the hope of Christ to a world in need?