We are made to love, and what we love motivates us and gives direction to our life. The human heart is at the center of biblical anthropology. The heart is comprehensive–it includes our affections, our volition, and our emotions–and it is to be directed, or ordered, toward God first and foremost (Proverbs 4, 27; Matthew 22). Due to the Fall, our loves are now misguided, or misdirected. To use an older term, our loves can become inordinate. Simply stated, we can love the wrong things, or we can express our love of the right things in wrong ways.
Saint Augustine speaks about two overarching loves: love of God and love of self. These loves battle one another: the former leads to holiness, love of neighbor, peacefulness, and truth; the latter leads to rivalry, jealousy, self-consumption, and idolatry. If self-love is preeminent, then we have inordinate loves.
In June 2016, J. Robertson McQuilkin passed from life to life. McQuilkin was quite an extraordinary man. He served as president of Columbia International University in South Carolina and as a missionary to Japan. What really set him apart, however, was his committed, long-suffering, and humble service to his wife, Muriel, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. To fully devote himself to her well-being, he resigned his post as president of CIU in 1990 and lovingly cared for her until her death in 2003.
These loves battle one another: the former leads to holiness, love of neighbor, peacefulness, and truth; the latter leads to rivalry, jealousy, self-consumption, and idolatry.
In McQuilkin’s small yet impactful book The Great Omission, he writes about three loves that motivate us to engage in God’s mission among the nations, and I want to build off this idea and present three types of missionary loves.
1. Love of Self: “My goals and desires are most important.”
When love of self is primary, personal comfort, experience, and satisfaction take priority over anything and anyone else. Self-love produces questions along these lines: “What will I get out of it?” “Will I be happy and satisfied?” “Will it be a good experience for me?” Self, not others, is at the heart of each of these questions.
Typically, these kinds of questions are raised when we face difficulty or we’re in a ministry setting where there are few tangible results and a lot of growing frustration. Ministry is difficult, and it is often hard to quantify fruit, but we can’t allow discouragement to take our focus off of Christ and the people He has called us to. Focusing on ourselves will not move us toward sacrifice, faith, or endurance, and it certainly will not help us love God or others.
2. Love of Others: “My primary desire is to help the lost know Christ.”
At first, we may not view loving others first as an indication of inordinate loves; after all, the Bible commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). But if love of others is our primary love, then our main motive for missions and evangelism will not be Christ and His Commission–it will be the lost. And the reality is that people are often difficult and unlovable. What happens when the ministry is hard, there is little to no fruit, and, if you’re honest, you don’t really like the people you are living and ministering among?
If one is driven primarily by love of others, then zeal for ministry will often be fluctuating or fleeting, our motive for evangelism will be guilt-based, and ministry burnout will always be crouching at our doorstep. Yes, we are called to love others, but loving others as Jesus did will lead us to sacrifice our self, our time, our convenience, and our need to always like the people among whom we minister.
3. Love of God: “Love of the Father is my main motivation for ministry.”
Loving God first is our only hope for rightly loving ourselves and others. God-directed love orients all other loves in our lives. This love alone enables us to lay down the love of self (see Luke 9:23) and reshapes our love of others. In the garden at Gethsemane, Jesus models perfectly a love of God when He prays, “Not my will but Yours be done” (Matthew 26:39, 42). He lays down His preferences and submits His will to the Father’s. Jesus’ love is rightly directed toward God, and it is only in Jesus that we find the hope and strength we need to sacrifice love of self and love others as we should. These two loves become rightly ordered only when we love God first.
Loving God first is our only hope for rightly loving ourselves and others.
In life and ministry, there is a constant conflict between these three loves, and the question we all need to ask ourselves is, “Which love is first?” Missionaries new and old alike need to be prepared to constantly assess, and possibly sacrifice, their desires and plans in obedience to and love for Christ. This might mean changing your ministry location or taking on new responsibilities, or it may mean saying “no” to a new responsibility or opportunity, but if our primary motivation is our love for God, then we can trust the decisions we make are good for us and for those we are ministering among as well.
Loving God above all else doesn’t guarantee that everything will always be easy, but keeping your love for Him first will help you persevere even when ministry is hard, team dynamics are hard, your spiritual walk is hard, and family life is hard. In these moments, when we’re tempted to prioritize ourselves or the people around us, keep your mind and your heart focused on Christ, and trust that He is using your circumstances to reshape your desires and direct them rightly toward Him.
Greg Mathias is Director of the Global Missions Center at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Associate Professor of Global Missions. He and his family lived and served in the Middle East with the International Mission Board. Since that time, he has been involved in training and equipping through theological education and the local church.