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THE FIRST RULE OF HORSES is “Never, never, never, never, ever trust a horse!”

Ginny and I have two gentle horses. They love human attention. If you don’t give them enough, they will playfully nibble on your hand or give your clothes a little jerk. But they are 800-pound pets. If they inadvertently step on your foot or mistake your finger as part of a horse biscuit, they can seriously hurt you. 

Like them, pet them, ride them, but never, never ever forget THE FIRST RULE OF HORSES. 

There is a FIRST RULE IN MEDICINE too. It is, “First do no harm.”

In flying a plane you have to plan for weather, manage the fuel, communicate and navigate. But THE FIRST RULE OF FLYING, when things get dicey, is “First, fly the plane.”

What about missions? Is there a FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS?

What is Missions?

Before considering what the first rule of missions might be, let’s define what missions is. Missions has become a term without clear meaning. It seems that anything that is done for anyone else with the intent to help them now qualifies as “missions.”

It can be a week long or an entire career. It can involve providing health care where it is not available, teaching practical skills to people who need to know; OR it can be traveling to foreign lands, at great expense, to build a structure or paint one for people who could easily do it for themselves. It is all now called missions. 

The original concept of missions, however, came from the Bible. In each of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) the writers recorded Jesus’ command to His followers to go into all the world to teach His Gospel and to make disciples who could also pass on His good news of forgiveness and transforming power to others. 

We can also tie missions to Jesus’ teaching such as Matthew 25 starting at verse 31, where Jesus clearly taught that when we provide food, drink, housing, clothing, healthcare, and friendship to people who are genuinely in need of those things, we are actually doing it to Jesus Himself. 

So, the concept we call “missions” could be defined as, “The process of taking Christ’s spiritual teachings to people who are unaware of them and caring for their physical and emotional needs while training them to do the same for others.”

Now, beyond understanding what “missions” consists of, is there a FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS?  

The First Rule of Missions

It seems to me that a current candidate for the FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS could be taken from an old song by Debbie Boone, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.” Much of what is called missions today is done primarily for adventure or for the participants to gain esteem or to broaden their horizons. The Washington Post coined the term “Vacationaries” to describe most of those who now do short term missions. Self-gratification is clearly not what Jesus commanded us to do. 

Another current candidate for THE FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS could be that, “the objective of missions is to help people from other cultures become like us and experience the ‘American Dream’.” 

Jesus’ commission recorded by Matthew (Chapter 28, verses 18 thru 20) makes it clear that He wanted us to make disciples for Him, not people who emulate us or live like we do or who become dependent on us. 

My suggestion for the FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS, is not going to win you over immediately. But, please open your mind and consider my suggestion as the FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS. It is “Humility.”

Support for ‘Humility’

Consider Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christ Followers (Chapter 2, verses 3 thru 11). Paul tells them, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” Then he writes, “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had… he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being…he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. 

James wrote, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6 NLT) He also wrote, “So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” And a few paragraphs later James wrote, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.” (James 4:7, 10 NLT)

Peter wrote, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor.” (1 Peter 5:6 NLT)

Humility is not just a New Testament attribute. In Zephaniah chapter 2 verse 3 it says, “Seek to do what is right and to live humbly.” And in a vision Daniel was told, “Don’t be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you began to pray for understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your request has been heard in heaven. I have come in answer to your prayer.” (Chapter 10, verse 12)

There is another great promise related to humility in 2nd Chronicles 7:14, “… if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT). And there are promises attached to humility in the book of Proverbs. “Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2 NLT) “True humility and fear of the Lord lead to riches, honor, and long life.” (Proverbs 22:4)

Finally, from my own experience, I have seen humility work as a key ingredient in missions. I knew an oddball missionary in Ecuador who never fit well with other missionaries. He used tree branches to help people choose where to dig wells. He was a frumpy dresser and even, after almost thirty years in Ecuador, he butchered the Spanish language. I would see his ancient Cadillac parked outside adobe houses with thatched roofs and donkeys hobbled next to it. But Ecuadorians from all classes loved old Doc Carlson and listened to him teach them about Jesus because he was humble.

How about Mother Teresa? Humility made her an international celebrity and put her on the fast track to ‘sainthood’ in the Catholic Church. But humility did not make her wimpy. She scolded world leaders when they were insensitive to the plight of suffering people. In an address to an audience here in the U.S., including senators and congressmen and even president Clinton, she admonished them for allowing abortion to be legal.

Humility Opens Doors 40 Years Later

Yes, I suggest that the FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS is humility. I confess, regretfully, that I yearn for humility more than I practice it. It does not usually come to me naturally. Happily, I did marry into it. 

One last little story and I’ll rest my case. When I took Ginny and our teenage children back to live with the Waodani in the mid 90’s, we lived deep in the jungles. I regularly flew out to the nearest town to buy medicines, salt, soap, dynamite, machetes and other goods. My clothes were mildewed and I wore cheap jungle boots which were only worn by poor people in Shell and Puyo where I bought provisions. 

Nate Saint with George on Palm Beach 1956One day a shop keeper looked me over disapprovingly and asked me who I was and where I came from. When I told him I was Ecuadorian and lived right there in Shell Mera when I was just a boy, he laughed. He said, “solo había un Gringo…” He said, “Back in those days there was just one Gringo family that would come here.” He went on to tell me that the man was a pilot who loved Ecuadorians and even jungle Indians. He said the pilot would preach about God out in the open and the couple would sing songs about God. But then he went on to explain that the pilot and his wife and their children would eat with the people of Puyo and spend time with them creating ‘amistad’.

“Conociste a mis padres entonces. Yo soy el hijo de esa pareja.” “Then you knew my parents. I am that couple’s son.”

From then on, that man would go out of his way to introduce me to other shop owners and to his own extended family. He began to spread the word that my crude dress and perhaps slightly strange scent were not meant as disrespect. They were the result of my living out in the jungles with the savage Waodani who had killed my father, his friend. 

The humility mom and dad had demonstrated by associating with the common people of a wild-west town on the edge of the Amazon Jungle still opened doors for me 40 years later. 

If there is a FIRST RULE OF MISSIONS, I want to nominate HUMILITY. Micah 6:8 includes this admonition from God. “… this is what He (The Lord) requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”



Explore more about missions with Missions Dilemma Study. The Missions Dilemma is a 7-session series by Steve Saint that examines the current model of North American missions and compares it to the Biblical approach that Christ modeled for us. 

Missions Dilemma from ITEC on Vimeo.


  • Tom Petron says:

    You hit the nail on the head with the simple word. Humility. It is what the world leaders & all people need now! Thanks for your humility & your mission work.

  • Wilson Burton says:

    Steve, I’ve been back through my pictures several times in the last weeks as I was preparing to go to Peru. Life is an adventure and one of my greatest was to visit the Woudoni’s with you and the rest of the crew from five years ago learning how to survive in the Amazon jungle. Wilson P. Burton, Jr. Chairman, Spiritual Outdoor Adventures.

  • Dick Hecker says:

    Thank you Steve for speaking truth. Missions is not about me. Missions is not what you can do for God. Missions without humility only serves self and is of no eternal value. Indeed the work of Missions is completely the work the Lord will do and only the Humble can serve as conduits of His love and then He who is able can save the Lost and we can rejoice in His goodness, for none are worthy. Only the Lamb of God is Worthy.

  • Craig Nagle says:

    Dear Brother Steve, Thank you for always giving us clear, Holy Spirit-led words to reflect on concerning missions. I am always puzzled about what to make of missionary work as I see it carried out by Christian groups. What you share, what ITEC does, gives new focus and clarity to what missions really ought to be. Perhaps we can all truly carry out Jesus’ Great Commission in a more effective way that His second coming might truly hasten.