This week (January 8) marks the sixty-fifth anniversary of the death of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian. The five missionaries were speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956. They were all in their late 20s and early 30s.
In subsequent years, Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and Rachel Saint, Nate’s sister, went back to the Huaroani tribe to continue the work of their family members. Many among the tribe eventually put their trust in Christ.
Before he died, Nate Saint wrote:
“The way I see it, we ought to be willing to die. In the military, we were taught that to obtain our objectives, we had to be willing to be expendable. Missionaries must face that same expendability.”
That quote presents a challenge not only to missionaries but to all Christians. We should see ourselves as expendable for the sake of the gospel because there is something greater than this earthly life.
You’ve probably heard the famous line from Jim Eliot’s journal:
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
It’s powerful for the way it restates a principle we learn from Jesus (“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. The one who loses his life for My sake will find it”) and also lines up with the example of the Apostle Paul (“To live is Christ and to die is gain”).
Paul saw the life of the believer as ultimately consisting of two options: good and better. This is the secret to his contentment. This is the secret to his passion. It gives him courage in the face of opposition. And the secret of “good vs. better” challenges the American mindset today as we remember the 65th anniversary of the death of these five men. Take a look at two ways the “good versus better” secret takes shape.
GOOD: Living for Christ by serving others.
BETTER: Dying and being with Christ.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says it’s good to live for Christ by serving others, but it’s better to die and be with Christ.
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don’t know which one I should choose. I am torn between the two. I long to depart and be with Christ—which is far better—but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Since I am persuaded of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that, because of my coming to you again, your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound.” (Phil. 1:21-26)
Paul is imprisoned under house arrest. He’s chained to a guard. Most people would say, “Paul is in a bad situation, and things could get worse quickly if the authorities execute him.”
But Paul doesn’t think in terms of “bad to worse.” He knows the secret of “good vs. better.” Instead, he says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain!” In other words, As long as I’ve got breath, I can serve my Savior. I can labor in love for other people. I can continue my ministry of teaching and writing. I can keep working to form other people into the image of Jesus Christ, my Savior. To live is Christ. And get this: to die is gain! To die means being with Jesus. My martyrdom would be a better thing for me personally. So, I’m torn––not between bad and worse, but between good and better.
Paul’s upside-down (or right-side up) mindset reminds me of the old emblem of the American Baptist foreign missionary society. There’s an ox standing next to a plough, in front of an altar. The motto at the top says: “Ready for Either.” In other words: “Christian, you’re like the ox—ready to exert yourself in labor, or ready to be a sacrifice.”
Where does this mindset come from? It takes root in the heart of the Christian who knows that the past, present, and future is up to God. Ambrose, the fourth century pastor, summed up Paul’s mindset this way:
“From God we come, by God’s own power we are created, and to God we return.”
In the end we belong to God. He made us. He can do with us what He pleases. We’ll be with Him soon. The future is in His hands.
Paul sees life in terms of “good vs. better” because his source of joy is not something he’s created, but something he’s received. His hope is grounded not in a dream that he has invented, but by a reality he has witnessed. He finds joy because of the presence of the Person on the other side of the grave.
GOOD: Standing firm in faith and obedience.
BETTER: Suffering as a sign of salvation and judgment.
“Just one thing: As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel, not being frightened in any way by your opponents. This is a sign of destruction for them, but of your salvation — and this is from God. For it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are engaged in the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have.” (Phil. 1:27-30)
Once again, we see a situation that most people would say is going from bad to worse.
Bad: Facing opposition.
Worse: Suffering in terror.
But Paul says it’s good to face opposition because it gives you the chance to stand firm in faith and obedience, and he says it’s better to suffer because that’s a sign of salvation and judgment. It’s the sign of the cross.
What’s good? Living worthy of the gospel, standing firm in faith. Paul is saying, “Live a life that shows how worthy Christ is of your praise.” You’re not living up to your salvation; you’re living out your salvation.
What’s better? Not just believing in Christ, but suffering for Him. Far from seeing his imprisonment as an obstacle to God’s mission, Paul trusted that God’s plan for his life was working to further God’s kingdom and build up His church. Because salvation for our sins came through the redemptive suffering of Jesus, Paul knew that God’s mission would go forward through the redemptive suffering of God’s people.
There is significance in suffering. The Christian can endure—even welcome—suffering, because our ultimate source of joy is beyond any earthly pain. Our joy is in a risen Savior who can’t be taken away.
For the Christian, there is hope in every struggle. That’s why we take death-defying actions, because of indestructible joy in Jesus Christ. And so, with Jim, and Nate, and Pete, and Ed, and Roger, and yes with the Apostle Paul, we say: The One who gave His life for us is worthy of all our praise—whether we live our lives for Him or give our lives for Him.
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