I began to realize I was in trouble a month or so after the earthquake in Haiti. I was driving down a bumpy dirt road in Port-au-Prince, hurrying to get to a meeting while talking on the phone with a counseling professor in Dallas to hammer out the details for a trip where she would bring a group of professionals to provide desperately needed trauma counseling for our community.
With one hand on the steering wheel (trying to find the smoothest part of the road) and the other holding my phone, I noticed my eye started twitching. I steadied the wheel with my knee and tried massaging my eye to make it stop. It kept twitching.
“Hmm. That's weird,” I thought.
At that point I think I was on my 18th day of working 15+ hour days, helping to coordinate the relief efforts of an international church in Port-au-Prince. We were in post-earthquake crisis mode. We had a small tent-city camping out on our grounds, regular food distribution for 3,000 people, teams coming in from the States needing logistical support and a church full of deeply hurting people to care for.
In addition to that I was shuttling a seismic engineer all over the city to do damage inspections while also overseeing the repair of two friends' homes. When the senior pastor of the church got sick, I thought, “No problem. I've got this!” While he recovered, I added service planning and sermon prep to my list.
And the eye-twitching started to get worse.
A couple of times I thought about taking a day off. After all, I was grieving the loss of a friend in the quake myself. But we were in crisis mode and I had people counting on me. Rest would have to wait. After all, I was doing something good. People were being helped. I felt good about myself. So, I kept going. I never understood just how unhealthy it all was until I found myself sitting in that same counseling professors office back in Dallas just a couple months later.
About a month after I came back, I started to experience significant pain in my chest and a racing heart. After running some tests, my doctor told me my heart was fine. He gave me some pills and recommended I see a counselor. Diagnosis: burnout. As I met with a counselor and started the recovery process, I learned something I should have realized all along: Missions work is dangerous stuff.
When we think about danger in missions, we think about tropical diseases, coup d'états, kidnapping and even spiritual warfare. But we don't often think about the danger that can be equally destructive: the danger of thinking you are the hero.
As I sat down with a counselor and began to figure out what was going on with me, I discovered there was something idolatrous that was driving my desire to do all the things I was doing. It was a desire to be loved by people, and ultimately the feeling that I could earn a deeper love from God himself.
Sure, I knew that salvation was by grace through faith. After all, I was a seminary student at one of the best evangelical seminaries in the country! Despite years of understanding (and believing) that concept, there was still a part of me that thought I could score a few extra points with God on my own.
Part of what made this so dangerous was that it seemed to work so well. Everyone was concerned about Haiti in those days. CNN set up camp in Haiti. While everyone was watching from their living rooms, I was right there in the middle of the action (I even had coffee with Soledad O'Brien one morning!). In the eyes of my friends and supporters I was doing something great. And to be honest, there was a part of me that loved knowing that. See, we all want to be loved and accepted. That's not the problem. God designed us for that. The problem is, we look for acceptance in the wrong places and try to get it in the wrong ways.
I wish I understood this earlier because the burnout cost me more than I imagined. The chest pain stuck around for several months and during that time the littlest bit of stress would overwhelm me. In many ways, those couple months of intense work in Haiti cost me a year of productivity. Healing did come, though. It came after a long process of peeling back the layers of my idolatry with the help of a counselor and applying the truth of the gospel at every step.
What I Learned
The journey toward healing taught me many things about how to avoid that kind of ministry derailment in the future, but among them there are two that stand out:
1. The love you want is already yours
When I burned myself out, I did it trying to obtain something for myself that I already had in Christ—the complete love and acceptance of Almighty God. I wanted people to love me. I wanted God to love me. What I forgot was the very love I was wanting was already mine. The world says you get love by becoming more lovable. The gospel says you were already loved when you were the least lovable (Romans 5:8).
This is the gospel and holding tight to it is huge. In order to be effective in missions and avoid hurting yourself in the process, you have to get this. Frankly, this is Missions Effectiveness 101.
Missions work that is fueled by gospel love is a beautiful thing! The free gift of love we have received from God enables us to freely offer that same gift to others. Why? Because we know that we have an endless resource of love that is not only available to us, but also to those God puts before us. We can give love away to those we minister to knowing that it will never run out. Gospel love produces a generosity that is unparalleled because its supply is as unending as God himself.
Before you get involved in missions, you need to ask yourself: “Am I doing this because I am loved, or am I hoping this will help me be more lovable?” If your answer is the latter, you need to stop right there. Skipping this will not only hurt you, but it will also hurt those you serve. Don't take another step until the gospel has changed your world and you are convinced of God's love for you.
2. Ours is a supporting role
The mission of God is a story that started long before you became part of the picture. It's not about you. It's about what God is doing to redeem his creation and bring glory to himself. Missionaries are not the central characters; we are supporting characters that are supposed to direct the attention of the audience to the One in the leading role.
The look at me mentality is a huge temptation for us in missions because we get to be characters in an exciting chapter of the story. We're on the frontlines and we see exciting things happen! But we are supporting characters just the same. The story is about God, not us.
As we serve, we need to regularly ask, “Who is the center of attention here? Is it God, or is it me?” If it's the latter, it's time to adjust.
I remember I was sitting in class as a Bible college student when I heard something that has echoed in my soul ever since: There is nothing you can do to make God love you more and there is nothing you can do to make him love you less. His love for you is perfect because it is based in the perfect work of his Son.
As I've let that truth sink its roots deeper and deeper into my soul, I've found that I'm no longer propelled into service because of a longing in my soul to be loved, but by a deep joy that realizes I already am.
Have you experienced this in missions work? How do you avoid the trap of thinking you need to earn God's love?
Luke Perkins serves as an Admissions Counselor at Dallas Theological Seminary and has been involved with ministry in Haiti for the past 15 years. He completed his undergrad studies at Columbia International University and received his Master of Theology from DTS in 2013. He and his wife Becca have recently been appointed as missionaries to Haiti with Crossworld and are excited to be returning to the field full-time. Learn about their ministry at perkinsinhaiti.com