Despite his strong desire for heaven, Paul chose to remain in order to help the Philippians. Yet it is important to note that he was not choosing a life of ease or uselessness in God’s service. He intended to work hard – ‘labour’ is the way he describes it. Ahead of him was hard spiritual work, travelling again to spread the gospel and strengthen the churches. This choice was made by faith because he writes that he expected his work to be fruitful, which is probably a reference to the development of grace in the lives of his readers.
People often regard Paul as being an ivory-towered theologian, out of touch with the common person (whoever he or she is). His decision here gives the lie to such an absurd allegation. The strength of his love for these Philippians was such that he was prepared to stay out of heaven in order to help them grow in grace.
Paul also expected the Philippians to see the grace of God in his life. When they would see him and experience what Christ did for him and in him, and then through him for them, they would praise Jesus for using his devoted servant Paul. Although we do not have the apostle’s gifts or experiences, we can imitate him in this regard by being channels in whom and through whom the Lord will work. Then others will see his fruit and praise him for his grace.
How did Paul know which option to choose? First of all, he had a submissive heart to what God wanted him to do; he was willing for either option to take place. Second, he had a supplicating heart, one that he describes in Philippians 4:6: ‘do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’ This was followed by a serene heart: ‘And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (4:7).
These three aspects have to be present in every decision that we make, not only in those decisions that can be classified as major ones. Although Paul wanted to go to heaven, he would have sensed the Lord’s will was for him to remain. And when his heart agreed to do so, he would have had a strong sense of inner peace which comes to those who are walking in the will of God.