“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). As far as invitations to practice selflessness go, they don’t come much stronger than that!
Indeed, if you thought Christianity was going to be your ticket to a life of comfort and renown, you’re going to be disappointed (at first!). We follow in the footsteps of a cross-carrying, foot-washing Christ.
If we are honest, most of us have a bigger problem with the latter action than the former. Carrying my cross is one thing: washing your feet is quite another! As Richard Foster writes, “In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus call to deny our father and mother, houses and land, for the sake of the gospel, than his word to wash your feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have a chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we are banished to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”
Serving necessarily places others ahead of ourselves, because it is about meeting their needs, not our own. And that does not come easily or happily. As any track athlete will tell you, falling short of your personal best time in a race you won feels a whole lot better than doing so in a race you didn’t. Position is everything. This brings us right to the heart of the gospel, which demands a radical change to our perceptions of position.
The gospel is unapologetic and unwavering in its assault on traditional concepts of winning and losing. It tells quite a different story about who is first and who is last, at the final reckoning. It’s also adamant that the way we serve God is actually through serving other people. Leslie Newbigin writes to those who would seek to dispense all of their service on a holy God, rather than waste any of it on unholy people, “The debt which we owe to him is to be discharged by our subjection to our neighbour in loving service. Our neighbour is the appointed agent authorised to receive what we owe to the master.”
As Philippians 2 so beautifully [and in some ways, shockingly,] expresses, Jesus was most God-like when he served others. The implication being: we are most in his image, and therefore most human, when we do the same. No wonder service is one of the disciplines that Christians down through the ages have used to realign themselves to a gospel way of living. The practice of service goes right to the heart of our identity. It attacks many of our cultural defaults and assumptions, and keeps us in step with Christ’s example.
As we begin to do likewise, one of the things we will notice is a temptation to serve in ways that are actually more about bringing glory to us than meeting the needs of others. This is why humility and service go together. We won’t always be given the luxury of choosing the timing, the recipient, the publicity, or the magnitude of the service. When we insist on doing so, we run the risk of invalidating the very thing we are seeking to exhibit. Those four characteristics, which we will examine in the exercises each week of this month, revealed to us how often we attempt to serve on our own terms.
Ironically, humility can prove elusive when it comes to service. Yet, this should not stop us from looking for ways to serve. For all it’s openness to manipulation and misuse, service remains the most effective means of acquiring that much-needed humility. We do not need to go through life faintly hoping that someday humility may fall upon our heads. Of all the classical spiritual disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirit. This month, consciously choose to engage in the hidden, holy work or service.
Week One Exercise: The Timing
How rewarding— even fun— it can feel to pause for a period of serving when everything is well in our lives. How how incredibly difficult it is to do the same when all is not well. Anyone can play the part of the magnanimous altruist in fair weather but very few of us can consistently manage it in the foul. Busyness, tiredness, distraction, and a host of other minor irritations all have the potential to derail our best intentions. Properly practiced, service exhibits no such inconsistency.
This week, start a written inventory in your journal of the ‘opportunities to serve’ that you typically encounter, and more importantly, your reaction to them. When is it easiest? When is it most difficult? Look for the patterns and think about how you might change them. Take this week to ponder the timing of your service.
Week Two Exercise: The Recipient
Some people are ‘easier’ to serve than others. Perhaps they ‘give back’, or they make us feel good, or they are ‘no fuss’. Others, however, are not so easy. This week, continuing your written inventory in your journal of the ‘opportunities to serve’ that you typically encounter, ask yourself who you have served recently.
Why did you choose to give yourself to that person? Are they easier to serve than others? Who else might you serve sacrificially? Prayerfully, and creatively, consider whom you will serve. For further reflection, read Matthew 25:31-46.
Week Three Exercise: The Publicity
Self-righteous service requires external rewards. It needs to know that people see and appreciate the effort. It seeks human applause – with proper religious modesty of course! True service rests contented in hiddenness. The Divine ‘nod of approval’ is completely sufficient.
Is the Divine ‘nod of approval’ sufficient for you? This week, write some notes alongside your ‘service inventory’ on your motivations for serving. But as honest as you can: Why do you really serve in various situations? Which features more: publicity or hiddenness?
Week Four: The Magnitude
We can all find it in ourselves to volunteer if the Cause is significant or ‘sexy’ enough. And even if the task is to be carried out in anonymity, most of us can rise to the occasion if it is accompanied by a sense that it was worthy of our precious time and consideration.
Again, this turns service into a subtle form of self interest. But what about the service of ‘small things’? Running an errand for a friend, guarding the reputation of another, common courtesy, hospitality, or simply listening. Many of us live waiting for our one shot at martyrdom— our ‘big moment’ to serve others on such a scale as to earn our place in history.
Meanwhile dozens of less spectacular opportunities to serve pass by us every day. Not only do we miss the opportunities themselves, we miss the fact that it’s those smaller actions that shape us over a lifetime to make us capable of great act of selflessness. Still waiting for your big shot? How are you going on the small things? This week add some of those ‘small things’ to your service inventory.