In ministry, it is paramount that our service flows out of a heart of thankfulness for the gospel. The gospel reminds us that everything we are and everything we have comes from God. If we rush to serve without first meditating on this truth, we shift into the world’s way of doing good. Apart from the gospel, we serve from either a place of guilt or a desire to improve our reputation. In the gospel, we serve out of gratitude to Christ and eagerness to join his work in the world.
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to discern the intentions of our own hearts. Are we serving because we want praise or because we want the name of Jesus to be praised? The lines of these contrasting motivations blur in our not-yet-perfected hearts. However, there are some fairly simple questions we can ask ourselves to determine whether our service may have drifted away from gospel-centrality.
1. Do I need to be thanked to feel like my service was worth my time?
None of us would admit we serve others in order to receive praise ourselves. But what happens to your thought life when your service goes unnoticed?
Imagine you just spent two hours deep-cleaning the kitchen for your roommate or significant other. She comes home distracted and doesn’t notice any of your hard work. All of a sudden bitter little thoughts bloom in the back of your mind: “I didn’t do this for the ‘thank-you,’ but she could have at least appreciated my effort.”
How would you respond if you never receive acknowledgement for a particular act of service? If we become annoyed when we aren’t thanked for service, we might be motivated by gaining others’ approval more than displaying Christ-like love.
2. Do I only serve others if it makes me look good?
I don’t think any of us would say we are only willing to serve in areas that put us center-stage. Most of the time, we claim we’re willing to serve wherever the need is greatest. At some point, though, we’ve all tried to get out of a task by using the spiritual cop-out, “I don’t think I’m gifted in that area.” That’s not to say spiritual giftings aren’t important, but I wonder how often we misuse this biblical idea to protect our pride. We shy away from providing meals for friends in need because we aren’t the best cook. We hesitate to show hospitality because our house isn’t decorated as well as our neighbor’s. We don’t show up for a grieving brother or sister because we’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing.
It’s hard to serve others in ways that expose our insecurities. But we can’t avoid serving altogether because we want to maintain an image. If we want to be like our humble servant-king, sometimes we need to lay our pride aside and serve where it costs us most.
If we want to be like our humble servant-king, sometimes we need to lay our pride aside and serve where it costs us most.
3. Am I willing to be served by others?
Imagine that you are on a team helping a family to rebuild their home after a natural disaster. As you lay down a brick, a family member walks over and invites you to eat with them. They make a special meal and ask how they can pray for you. You suddenly get uncomfortable. After all, you came to help them. Why are they asking for your prayer requests? You start thinking of ways you can get back to the project as soon as possible.
While you may not have had an experience exactly like that, most of us have at one time or another felt uncomfortable at being on the receiving end of service. We think that “toughing it out” is more virtuous than allowing ourselves to be served. But Christian community ought to be characterized by humble people who admit when they need help and receive care with thanks. We serve others in every way we can, and we allow others to serve us. When we hold tightly to our pride we risk missing out on the encouragement and help that God provides through the global Christian family.
4. Is my service a task on the to-do list?
Go back to the house rebuilding scenario. You ate your lunch very quickly so you could get back to the project, but the family members don’t seem to be in a rush at all. They actually want to know all about you and your life. Inwardly you become increasingly annoyed. Don’t they know that you’re here to help build their house? They’re being very kind, but all this wasted time is going to make it really hard to finish the project on schedule.
A focus on efficiency can serve the project, or it can turn people into items on a check list. Once a relationship becomes inconvenient to us, it is all too easy to begin devaluing the person by our actions and words. Even our body language and flimsy excuses can communicate that we care more about our project than the people we came to serve. Ministry is about showing the love of Christ to others. When our service involves making people feel unworthy of our time, we have completely missed the mark.
Because we serve in a sinful world, avoiding these pitfalls won’t come easily. No matter how much we dedicate ourselves to “do better,” there will be times when our sin causes us to fall short of Jesus’ selfless example. For the days when our failures overwhelm us with guilt and discouragement, it is equally important to remind ourselves of the sure hope we have in the Holy Spirit: he will never stop working in our hearts to make us, and our service, more like our Savior.