“Two men look out through the same bars: One sees the mud and one the stars.”
So, what makes the difference? Certainly not their position—for both men are locked up in a prison. They peer beyond the bars—and see something totally different. The difference isn’t in position, but perspective.
Solomon described life viewed without the eternal reference point: “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Now, he wasn’t a man in a prison, but a palace. The king knew pleasure, power and possessions which would mark him as the richest man in the world. But his soul was completely bankrupt and when he viewed all the “stuff” from a carnal perspective concluded it to all be “vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). It is the recurring discordant note of despair sung in this dirge of Solomon.
Surely it was a similar point of view which washed over Hamlet like a tsunami of disillusionment when he moaned, “To be or not to be: that is the question” (Shakespeare). Essentially he looks out of his prison bars of problems and sees mud. He concludes that life is misery and death is mystery. Life is relentless in its difficulties as waves constantly rolling in—and death might even be worse—particularly if one ends his own life and might face eternal condemnation. Who knows? He is torn between two options and neither one good.
Compare that with the perspective of another man who writes—quite literally—from a prison. He states with incredible confidence—even celebration,
“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. Yet what 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…for your progress and joy in the faith.” (Philippians 1:21-25, ESV).
The Apostle Paul concludes that life is ministry and death is majesty. Life is relentless to be sure, but when viewed from an eternal perspective, those same tides that sweep over one and drown him, are seen to also roll out and bear the other man on a voyage of great adventure—ultimately to the most exotic destination! He is torn between two options and both are glorious!
What makes the difference? Perspective—oh yes—but that only leads us to question why the two viewpoints are so radically opposed. The old general of the faith, Paul, joyfully puts his finger on it. (That finger, by the way, is attached to a hand, and the hand to a wrist, and the wrist to a manacle and the manacle to a chain and the chain to a stone wall, yet he is irrepressibly free in his spirit to see the stars and soar to them!) What makes the difference? He tells us in one word—one name—and it is: “Christ.” Because he can state that Jesus is the source, substance and sum of his life, then he can add that death is great gain: “far better.”
Centuries later, C.S. Lewis stated it this way, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” That is the difference that makes the difference—all these words to get to the living Word: CHRIST. He is our fixed point of reference by which we can sail safely across turbulent tides and arrive home. Knowing Him as Lord and Savior is the difference that makes all the difference.
(With thanks to Stuart Briscoe who in his memoir, “Flowing Streams” discusses a sermon by Paul Rees on pages 88-89 that was a magnificent message on a Monday morning!)