The Missionary’s Question: To Live or Die?

The Apostle Paul’s dilemma forces us to reorient our priorities.

“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 which 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.  Convinced of this,  I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your  progress and  joy in the faith,  so that in me  you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” (Philippians 1:21-26 ESV)

Cory was a jolly, big-bearded, thick-skinned doctoral student. An avid weightlifter, yet even-tempered as a family man and student of Scripture, Cory carried himself with gravitas. He was difficult to rattle.

So, my curiosity was piqued when, one day in the gym, Cory proceeded to share with me what he most feared in life. I will never forget his answer.

“Being put on a shelf,” he said. “Not being used by the Lord.”

I was caught off guard. Back then, if I had been honest, my greatest fear would have been something more mundane—failing to get married, start a family, or have a successful career. Cory’s remark confronted me. Is my greatest concern in life a desire to be used by the Lord?

The Apostle Paul seems to have had little doubt that the Lord would use him. “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” he confidently asserts in verse 20 (emphasis added). He then explains the reason for his certainty: “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). His life’s aim was to serve Christ (“fruitful labor,” v. 22), while his aim in death was to see Christ (which “is far better,” v. 23). Either way, he could not lose.

Paul indeed had distress—not at the prospect of death, but at the choice between serving Christ and seeing Christ. He was “hard pressed” (synechomai) between the two—the same Greek word used to describe Jesus’ own internal distress when awaiting his crucifixion (Luke 12:50). Death, it is true, means the separation of the soul from the body—an alienation that is not redressed until the dead are raised at the end of history at Christ’s return (1 Corinthians 15:22-23). But even to be “absent” from one’s own body is to be desired if it means being “present with the Lord” (see 2 Corinthians 5:8). We do not know much about this intermediate state of the souls of the saints in heaven as they await the resurrection, but we know that enjoying the personal company of the glorified Christ makes this state glorious indeed.

What, then, could possibly motivate Paul to remain engaged in fruitful labor on earth? He recognizes that what is “more necessary” (v. 24) is the “progress and joy in the faith” of his disciples (v. 25). Consider Paul’s absolute sincerity as a minister of the gospel. As a missionary, he conducted himself with “simplicity and godly sincerity” (2 Corinthians 1:12). He regarded his disciples as his “little children” with whom he was in the “anguish of childbirth” until Christ was formed in them (Galatians 4:19). “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls,” he writes elsewhere.

I have often heard it said in various Christian circles: “It is easier to die for Christ than to live for him.” There is some naïveté in this maxim. To die as a martyr is no small thing. Yet the kernel of wisdom in this statement is that living for Christ does indeed require a sustained effort of dying to self and serving others. Yet missional follower of Christ must ask, in their spirits, “To live for Christ, or to be present with him—which do I value more?” If the answer is “neither,” we must rearrange our priorities.

If we struggle to relate to Paul, for whom life meant certain fruitfulness and death was a genuine upgrade, perhaps we lack his sincere care for the souls of others. Maybe we are more concerned with worldly attainments than eternal impact—as I was in my conversation with Cory. Doubtless, many of us drift through life without sufficiently meditating upon the joy of seeing Christ in heaven and presenting to him a life well lived.

May we be discontent with living wasted lives. Let us pursue, even in great distress, fruitful labor for the Lord until we see him in glory.


Lord Jesus,

When you called me to yourself and saved me, you could have immediately brought me into your presence. Instead, you left me on earth. For as long as you would grant me to live, give me diligence to pursue faithful labor in your name. Help me to be concerned with the souls of others, so that when we are face to face, I may present to you a life lived for your glory.

In your name,


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for your family and church to have greater fruitfulness in making disciples. Ask God to give you sincere hearts, like Paul’s.
  2. Pray for small, weak, or fledgling churches on the mission field to be strengthened by selfless ministers committed to their upbuilding.
  3. Pray for missionaries across the globe to be able to say, with Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Ask the Lord to give cross-cultural workers a striving, persevering focus on eternal things.
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