A number of years ago I sat in a missions class watching an animated video of jumbo jets plunging into the ground one after another while a voiceover told me, “Every year, such-and-such number of people die without ever hearing about Christ, which is the equivalent of so many jumbo jets full of passengers crashing each day, killing everyone aboard.” I forget what the exact numbers were that the narrator told us, but it was quite large. The point of the video was to drive home the gravity of the need to urgently send out missionaries to those who had never heard of Christ. The planes crashing were to help us get our mind around a very large number and to be a motivator to go be missionaries.
While the video was helpful on an informational level, as a motivational tool it came up a bit short. The instructors of the class did not intend this point alone to be the sole motivator for someone to become a missionary but it is very possible to let the needs of the lost and the urgency of the task to be primary motivating factors in going to the mission field. Feeling compassion for “all those people” dying without Christ can be a good prod in the directions of missionary service but it can’t get you all the way to the mission field. Or, even if compassion for the lost does somehow manage to get you to the mission field, you are not going to last long if it is your primary motivation for being there. The fields may be ripe unto harvest but that does not mean that people who have not heard of Christ are just standing around eagerly waiting for the Gospel messenger. Even after you’ve done your language and culture study, community relations, and shared the Gospel in various and diverse ways, many people will still not be interested. Some will be outright hostile. Some will be kind, but suggest that you do something more productive like teaching English. The point is, keeping images of crashing jumbo jets ever before you is not going to help you keep going on the mission field for very long.
The apostle Paul is often looked to as a great missionary role model to be emulated, and since a number of his letters are divinely inspired Scripture, it is worth taking a look at what motivated Paul’s missionary labors and kept him going during the tough times (which was most of the time). First, Paul was sure that God had called him. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God,” (Romans 1:1). Paul’s missionary labors were for God, and in obedience to God, and not in response to the needs of the mission field. Because of God’s grace to him, and because of God’s call upon his life, Paul felt an obligation to God to proclaim the Gospel. His commitment was to God, not to a specific people group. In his commentary on Romans, Geoffrey Wilson makes the following comment on Romans 9:14
“V14: I am debtor both to Greeks and to Barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish.
...Since Paul’s unremitting labours were not inspired by those to whom he was sent, but by his abiding sense of the divine obligation which rested upon him, he was not deterred by the unfavorable response his message so often excited. For he knew that all men everywhere needed the gospel, and the solemn fact that they do not by nature desire it had no bearing on his responsibility to make full proof of his ministry [1 Cor 9:16]” (Wilson, Geoffrey B., Romans, A Digest of Reformed Comment, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1976, p.23)