There are some people in the developed world who will say things like…
I dislike having to drive four hours to our vacation home.
The Wi-Fi at the resort was out for two hours.
There was no almond milk at the breakfast buffet.
Just had my praline spread confiscated by TSA. As far as I’m concerned, the terrorists have now won.
Flying commercial with both ski boots and golf clubs is such a hassle.
I tried to spread cold butter on my toast and the bread ripped.
My Apple Watch didn’t register the correct distance on my 10k run.
Asked for strawberry Chantilly in my Açai palm nuts and received chocolate instead.
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.
Ok, that last one doesn’t belong on this list. It’s what the apostle Paul writes in our Scripture reading from Philippians, and it definitely does not fit the First World problem definition.
First World Problem statements only serve to reinforce our privileged status, while Paul’s statement sets the bar high for a more faithful and humble perspective toward life—a perspective that can free us from that which has little meaning in life so we can live focused on what does matter.
Paul and his co-workers had founded the church in Philippi some years before this letter was written. When Paul wrote this, he was in prison in Rome, and the Philippian Christians were worried about him, knowing he might be executed for preaching Christ. In fact, they had sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to Paul with a gift. As Epaphroditus was preparing to return home to Philippi, Paul wrote this letter so he could carry it to the believers in Philippi.
In this context, Paul’s comment that living was all about Christ and dying was “gain” makes sense. Paul was saying, “Don’t worry about me. My life is devoted to Christ, so if being faithful to him means I have to be in chains, that’s fine with me. And if they should kill me, that’s fine too, because I will receive eternal life and be with Christ forever.”
Paul has achieved an ironclad perspective to life—that no matter what, he wins. And it comes because of his willingness to focus on Christ more so than the things and ways of this world.
Now, we are not in anything like Paul’s situation, but his words still challenge us to think about what really matters in life. In fact, that’s the implied lesson of anything branded as a First World problem.
It’s not really that those frustrations are of no concern, but that, in the larger perspective of life, they matter less and sometimes hardly at all.
And thus, there’s spiritual value to applying that perspective to how we deal with the challenges and opportunities of life, and how we help or don’t help those who are suffering because of shortages of life’s necessities.
Paul urges us to remember there’s important work for the follower of Christ to do. The challenge of navigating between the Mocha-chino or Frappuccino is not among that work. But deciding what to do about the needs of a suffering neighbor is.
What’s more, sooner or later, we all face personal tragedies— the bone-crushing depression that follows a marital breakup, the death of a loved one, the self-destructive behavior of one of our children, the terror of life-threatening illness or something else equally weighty.
We get to know words like: sickness, accident, misfortune, injury, setback, troubles, catastrophe, pain and hurt up close and personally. These are real life challenges we will face. Lamenting First World promblems will never prepare us to face them.
So how do we prepare? Paul’s words suggest we take a long view.
Novelist, spiritual writer, and activist Anne Lamott tells of an incident that helped her take a long view. She explains how she was raised to keep all her family secrets locked away and present herself in such a way that people would be either envious or approving. She admits, however, keeping up a façade like that takes a lot of energy.
But one day, Lamott visited her friend Pammy who was battling cancer. Lamott pointed to the dress she herself was wearing and asked Pammy if it made her look fat—because again, she has to make others envious or get them to approve.
Her friend Pammy looked at her and said, “Annie, you just don’t have that kind of time.”
Lamott remarks how profound Pammy’s response was, saying, “It was like I was in a cartoon and somebody conked me over the head. I got it. A brand new perspective.”
Lamott goes on to say that though Pammy has since died, she still lives by what Pammy said to her, summing it up this way:
“You don’t have time to live a lie. You don’t have time to get the world to approve of you. You only have the time to become the person you dream of being. You only have the time to clean out your mean and ugly spots, areas that drag you down and hurt other people. You only have the time to accept yourself as you are and start getting a little bit healthier so you can be who God needs you to be.
In a way, it’s exhilarating to say, ‘This is really who I am, and I’m not going to pretend just because I have the sneaking suspicion I’m not good enough.’ God meets you where you are.”
Perhaps this is what First World problems can do for us.
When we recognize them for what they are, we can gain a new perspective about what really matters. That can even help us to see when something we’re doing doesn’t work. And then this fresh perspective can show us the right direction so we can live our lives “in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
It may be ironic that we are assigning to First World problems the ability to help us keep things in perspective, because usually, it’s problems at the other end of the spectrum that help us decide what’s important.
For example, after a major catastrophe hits a town, you can almost always find people who have lost everything they owned, but whose loved ones have all survived, who say, “All that other stuff can be replaced. Our family members are okay. That’s all that matters.”
The late Ellsworth Kalas, a noted Methodist preacher and former president of Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, speaks to this mindset when we told of being a guest in Wichita Falls, Texas, a year after that community had been brutally hit by a tornado.
Kalas was hosted in a newly rebuilt home, where the owner invited him to stand in a perticular spot in the front hallway. The man said, “Our old home was on this same location. The storm leveled it to the ground. Everything. There in the rubble, at this very spot, was a football. I don’t know whose it was or where it came from. I picked it up, looked at it, then kicked it as far as I could. It seemed like the right thing because there was work to do.”
After telling this story, Kalas said, “After life’s values had been so mercilessly put to the test kicking that ball was a wonderfully symbolic act of starting the work that needed to be done.”
Perhaps some of our trivial complaints deserve the same kind of “kicking away.”
But kicking away requires of us repentance—the turning around and going in the right direction, the direction God calls us to go because repentance can refer not only to turning from sin, but also turning from the stuff that really doesn’t matter and turning instead to the stuff that does.
We can repent of, we can kick away, getting wrapped up and consumed by the things we don’t have time for—like our first world problems.
We can repent of, we can kick away, the endless, vicious cycle of trying to please everyone, and instead focus on those who accept us for who we are.
We can repent of, we can kick away, the false and incendiary voices who work to convince us that we are less than acceptable because we don’t meet their wants or expectations.
We can repent of, we can kick them all away, and turn to the one who shows Paul that no matter what comes of life in this world, “living is Christ, and dying is gain.”
Paul’s words: “living is Christ, and dying is gain” can help us clarify our priorities and give us a new and faithful perspective.
His words call us to work on being who God calls us to be, and live in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
So may we begin the work of kicking away that which does not matter, that which is hindering the real and faithful work that we need to do.
May we do so by taking a long view of the world around us, and identifying the things we really don’t have time for.
And may we do so by standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind in the faith of the Gospel, not being intimidated by our opponents.
For when we do, then we will have a new perspective—that living is Christ, and dying is gain. Amen.