There are many characteristics that define a Christian life. Many things may be signs that someone is truly living out their faith in correspondence with the Gospels. However, one primary aspect of a Christian stands out, and that is the element of service.
Service can be defined as things you do for something or someone. In the Gospel context, service is much larger than that. Service, according to the teaching of Jesus, is a way of life. It is more than an aspect Christian character, it IS Christian character. In the following five scriptures we discover five elements of service that please God. The five elements are:
Serving with Obedience
Serving with Strength
Serving with Suffering
Serving with Priorities
Serving with Change
Serving with Obedience (1 Samuel 15)
In 1 Samuel 15, we are plunged into the moment of no return for the newly anointed first King of Israel, Saul, and his relationship with God. After Israel demanded to have a King of their own in place of God Himself, God granted their request and gave them Saul. Although beginning his reign over Israel as a servant to God with a humble heart, Saul’s character began to change with success and popularity. As is the case with many of us, Christian or not, the moment we see more of ourselves we see less of everything else. This is where we find Saul as we enter into Chapter 15.
However, we can’t be completely critical of Saul at this point. Saul still believed that he was doing God’s work and acting in a way pleasing to God. In the passage, we find that God had given Saul direct orders to deal with the Amalekites completely and conclusively. With zeal and strength in the Lord, Saul overpowered them with ease and was left with the choice: to see his orders out through the end or to compromise God’s will as he began to pursue his own. Unfortunately Saul made the mistake that we often do. He began to compromise God’s true will in order to follow his own interests and desires.
Saul was ordered by God to eliminate the Amalekites completely. And, although Saul defeated them on the battlefield, his priorities after the flight changed once he let his heart and the people around him command more of an influence over his decision-making. As the battle came to a close Saul was left with the King of the Amalekites, King Agag, alive and potentially useful for a ransom reward. Saul also found himself with an impressive financial and material bounty taken from the Amalekites. As Saul began to listen more to the desires in his own heart, the voice of God began to fade ever further into the background. Saul concluded that God would not think critically of his decision to do what he truly desired as long as God’s command was at least partially remembered and obeyed. To Saul, there was large-scale sin and small-scale sin and God would naturally view his as that of the smallest order. After all, he did defeat the people God ordered him to. Would God be so displeased if he took a little reward for himself on a part of his dutiful “service” and “obedience?”
Samuel, the prophet who was God’s messenger during Saul’s ruling years, entered the scene as Saul was carrying out these sacrifices. Noticing the blatant disobedience of Saul, Samuel began to rebuke Saul for his actions. At this point it is far too easy for us to judge Saul’s actions, shocked that someone could disregard the commands of God in such a manner. However, as we read this passage in front of the mirror, Saul’s actions following Samuel’s initial rebuke is a bit more convicting and much more like us. Saul begins to make excuses as to why he did not do everything God had demanded. To this Samuel has one powerful one-word response. STOP.
As Christians who actively take a role in our church or even as Christians who are living out our days under the banner of Christ there are often times when we clearly are aware of what we are supposed to do or are called to, yet we hesitate. For whatever reason, we begin to doubt either our initial calling or the necessity to follow that calling to the exact specifications. In other words, we all face moments when we want to do one thing and God wants us to do another.
It is never easy to follow a path that seems lead nowhere or lack a purpose and direction. However, as Christians, there must be a deeper motivation to our service. Our service can never be about knowing the destination ahead of time, or the easiest way to get there. As Christians and God’s children, we must follow and obey because we are aware that the one handing out the orders has our best interests in mind and deserves our service. The moment we begin to stray from our orders is the moment that we have either lost trust in God’s ability to know how to do something, or lack the faith that he knows how to get us somewhere. Either way, straying from the will or plans of God shows complete lack of respect. We are prideful beings who like control and only God can heal this sickness in us
It’s important to remember that all along Saul thought God would understand and be pleased with his actions. Saul is not sinning in the pursuit of unrighteousness. He is under the impression that God’s righteousness can find harmony or balance with our own personal desires. What we learn from Saul is that, as much as we have been programmed to repent of our sins and all of our unrighteousness, we as Christians need to be ever aware of sins done out of righteousness and “good deeds.” The one thing that Saul never says is, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong.” He could not believe that God disregarded his efforts and achievements. How could an obedient servant be criticized for such a trivial deviation from the original objective?
As we carry out duties within the church and society we must always be aware of why we are doing the things we do for God, and if we are serving to be obedient to God or to our own heart. In other words, do we obey out of a love for God? Or do we obey out of a love for ourselves? As Christians, although our dependence on sin will fade over time, as we are reborn in spirit we must always be aware of the never-ending presence of sin in our lives. Sinful desires can be overcome, but sin will never disappear as long as we are alive. In Jesus Christ, God is with us, but because of the fall, so is sin. Even as we go to church on Sunday and serve, even as we share the word of God, we must never forget that none is good but God. The only “good” person has ransomed us out of our imperfection. It takes the realization of God’s saving grace through the works of Jesus Christ to find the true motivation to serve with natural and genuine obedience to God alone. We ultimately find the motivation to “be good” only because he is perfect. Jesus calls us to be servants, not out of the promise of riches or rewards, but out of a desire to be one with him through our sacrifice in the name of obedience.
Serving with Strength (Psalm 62)
When it comes to serving people or doing good deeds, the old debate springs up if any truly selfish act exists. Most people acknowledge that behind every act of goodwill is always some self-serving motivation. As we do good things or serve others, motivation is always in question. When we pursue something for ourselves, we negate self-less service for others.
But God in Scripture demands selfless service from his followers. This makes us wonder: does God not understand whom he is talking to? Does he not understand our limited ability to do such things? The answer to this comes through the word of God, where we can see that God does know exactly to whom he is talking, and he fully understands our limited potential without him.
Service can usually be divided into two categories. On one side, you serve to gain something for yourself. On the other, you serve to pay what you owe.
Serving with the hopes of gaining something in return for the service is, at its core, selfish. The true motivation behind such charity has everything to do with you rather than those you serve, making this so called “charity” sinful at its core. Unfortunately, this is the outlook of many churchgoing Christians. Behind the façade of busyness attributed to their busy “service” schedule is the desire to ultimately “cash in” on all of the good deeds for some future reward. For many Christians, going to church is a way to “earn points.” For others, sharing the Gospel with people on the street is a method in which to gain points. For others, opening the door for a co-worker is a method to gain points. Regardless of the method, selfishness and self-centeredness lurk behind each righteous deed. Serving God in this way actually has nothing to do with God at all. In all honesty, God is simply a man working at the carnival prize stand who will cash in your tickets for stuffed animals and goofy pens.
Serving to pay a debt comes with entirely different motivation. Serving because we expect something in return allows us to occupy the center of all of our deeds done for others. However, serving because you are in debt puts the focus on the one you are serving, rather than on you. Becoming aware that you are heavily indebted to someone adjusts the heart and soul into “payback” mode. For example, if someone went two hours out of their way to help you on the side of the road because your car broke down, you would naturally have a desire to do something, big or small, to thank them for their assistance and effort. The most effective way to feel love is to give it. and the most powerful motivation to serve is to receive outrageous mercy and love.
Repeatedly the psalmist refers to God as a “rock” and a “fortress.” Repeatedly the psalmist confidently proclaims that, in God alone, is safety, strength and hope. The psalmist has clearly experienced the personal, tangible power and mercy of God, and stands boldly upon this foundation. It is clear to the writer that it was not in his own power that he was serving God, and it was not as a result of his power that he was so cared for and protected. This individual understood that the only true power to display and the only power to serve came from one place alone.
Each Sunday Christians pour into churches around the world under the banner of Christ. The question that lies at the foundation of this fact is, “why?”
For some, perhaps, this devotion is motivated by hope of future reward or praise. Going to church is simply a requirement by which to garner favor with God and admittance into heaven. But the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, indeed the whole body of the Scriptures, shows that no one person can ever do enough to justify admittance into heaven. Nor can we receive any righteous reward out of human effort. The truth is that we are ultimately and completely justified only by the perfect sacrifice. Only by his wounds, his selfless service, are we completely healed. Serving God can never stem from a desire to earn our reward or our glory. Serving God the way that Jesus preached is by God alone and for God alone. It is in Jesus we find a reason to serve. It is in his life that we find the power to serve.
Serving with Suffering (Isaiah 53)
In the first section, in 1 Samuel 15, we met Israel’s first human king: Saul, a king with human tendencies and human abilities. Saul demonstrates so well the potential of the human heart to fall victim to power, success, temptation and glory. In this section we will read one of the most powerfully prophetic scriptures about the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Isaiah 53 shows another sort of king, a “suffering servant” who is the complete opposite of Saul. This individual, who is praiseworthy, innocent of sin and glorious, the most glorious and most praiseworthy figure in history that, received nothing but suffering, disgrace and shame in his mission to save the world.
The Bible can be difficult to digest because it is an ancient text, but it also can be difficult because of what it demands of us. The Bible and, more specifically, the teachings of Jesus Christ, establish a bar of behavior that is intimidating at best. Christians are called into a life of service that no human being could ever live up to. Jesus Christ’s depiction of true Christian character seems superhuman and impossibly unrealistic.
Unfortunately, many Christians and non-Christians leave the expectations and frustrations there. They see expectations and demands and never move beyond the daunting realities that those demands present. But this mistake can be resolved if we understand Isaiah 53. In the Gospels we don’t encounter a list of demands and orders from a distant and judgmental deity. Rather, we meet Jesus. The suffering servant came into our world and lived alongside us in order to model a way of life so that we could follow him and not simply the commands. Jesus never preached orders. On the contrary, Jesus preached repentance, or change. Change not to harm us but change that can free us. Jesus announced “good news,” not “new rules.”
Jesus preached himself because only in him can we truly live the way he expects us to. He is the savior of Isaiah 53 who did far more than we will ever be expected to do, simply so that we wouldn’t have to. In Jesus we have a God that suffered, felt pain, and understands us completely.
Why did Jesus choose to come into the world? The question can be confusing. If one takes his life as a platform by which to give orders and make demands, then his sacrifice and the way he lived falls out of order and lacks purpose or rationality. For thousands of years God spoke through the prophets, like Isaiah, to deliver important messages to his people. Therefore, what necessity would there be to send someone as valuable as his son to do the same job? However, if we think about the life of Jesus as he himself proclaimed, his purpose begins to fall into place. The mission of Jesus Christ was not only to save his children, but to be with them and love them by living alongside them, and finally, by dying for all of them.
In our social lives, the people that we are closest to are typically people who share the most in common with us. We are drawn to these people; we depend on and trust them. Therefore, knowing our hearts, God knew that the only way to reach us was to be a “God with us.” He came as a servant to show us that he was willing to serve in a way we could never serve. Only through the reception of his life and service as a free gift, undeserving and unearned, will we find the ability to live the life that he desires for us. Jesus Christ came into our world to serve us with only God’s approval in mind. Through the life of Jesus we see that God understands us: our trials, our sorrows, our tribulations. Not only has he experienced them all himself, but he can truthfully say that he was tested beyond anything we can possibly compare with. Lack of understanding and empathy does not emanate from a God who demands too much from us without knowing us. The lack of understanding is ours, directed toward Jesus, who gave more for us than we could ever give him in return. He suffered in ways we never will be required to.
Jesus was the teacher of all teachers for many reasons, but one of his most powerful qualities was his ability to lead by example. He led us into salvation by his example. All that is left for us is to do is be moved by his life and begin to follow in his footsteps one step at a time.
Serving with Priorities (Matthew 5)
The teachings of Jesus Christ, found throughout the Gospel narratives, are the foundation on which a Christian builds her life. These teachings are most concentrated in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon holds such well-known commands as, “Do not judge,” “Love your neighbor,” and “Turn the other cheek.” The teachings of Jesus come fast in this passage, and are overwhelming in their expectations. If you don’t read it carefully, the famous sermon may be nothing more than a peaceful evening with the “good shepherd” on a grassy hillside, everyone holding hands while taking deep sighs of contentment. But if we really consider the life this sermon called Jesus’ disciples to live, one can imagine that those sighs of contentment as shocked gasps. How could anyone be expected to live that way? If we realize this, Jesus might possibly respond, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” as he does in Mark 12. The reason being that to understand that these standards are impossible means that there might be room to believe that the only way to achieve such “impossible standards” is through power greater than our own. In fact the only way to meet the standards found in this famous sermon is to be drawn to the power of God, not the power of self-will.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
In the previous three readings we explored three issues directly pertaining to the idea of serving God. First, we found that we must serve with obedience. Second, we must serve recognizing God’s power. Third, we must always be prepared to suffer in service as our “suffering servant” served and modeled before us. However, in all of these scriptures, what we read were descriptions of what God wants from our service.
The fascinating aspect of Matthew 5 is that here we finally hear the voice of God speaking through Jesus Christ about service. God says that when we come to serve him, we must be motivated, inspired and focused on serving God alone, devoted to serving him and nothing else. Jesus tells the people that if there is anything else that occupies any space in our hearts or minds, we might as well take the offering, set it down, go take care of our “more important business” and then come back and serve.
Today, it is not unusual to find a church on any given Sunday at any given location filled with people who have set aside a one or, for the “high-level Christians,” a two-hour block in their weekly schedule for God. Our world is fast-paced and full of obligations. We have many things to do and have little time to get anything done. In this environment people find it increasingly difficult to “make time” for God. Unfortunately, this includes our time as we take our seats at church.
While many of us face schedules and commitments that require much of our energy, time and attention, many of us pride ourselves on our ability to “multi-task.” Multi-tasking is a great skill when the objective is to complete several tasks in the least amount of time.
But the danger of becoming a professional multi-tasker is that we become so proficient at occupying our time with multiple tasks at once that we lose our ability to determine when one task deserves our complete and undivided attention. For example, the idea of ” family time” has suffered increasingly over the past 20 years. The amount of “quality time” that families spend with one another with no distractions whatsoever has been on a steady decline, a trend that may be attributed in some ways to “busyness” and “multi-tasking.”
When you don’t give your undivided attention to something or someone you hold to be important to you, the quality of that relationship will suffer and the relationship will ultimately lose that sense of importance.
From this perspective we can better understand the demand of Jesus that we take care of certain issues before approaching the altar with offerings. When we come to God preoccupied with a thousand different things, we are doing the equivalent of starting an important discussion with a close friend and then immediately answering a seemingly trivial phone call while “sharing” this “quality time.”
Being raised in a Christian household gave me many impressions, assumptions and ideas about how to live a Christian life. However, what I understood was superficial at best when it came to who God actually claims to be and what he specifically desired from me as a Christian. I believed God was the egotistical, power-hungry “man upstairs” who, without much proof or explanation of his true existence, wanted me to trust him with everything and believe that the basis of this demand was loving and in my best interest. I believed what he wanted from me was regular church attendance, prayer and the practice of impossible standards, many which are noted in Matthew 5.
When I at last read through the entire Bible, I did not find the God I expected to find. This God was not obsessed about the things I thought he would be obsessed about. In regards to service and worship, like the verses in Matthew 5, God clearly states that he would rather have no offering, no church attendance and no money from a so-called “Christian” if doing those things meant doing them with a divided focus and a divided heart. I discovered that God’s desire was to have all of my heart, but not if I was unprepared and unwilling to give it all away.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demands many things from those who choose to follow him. He desires a level of commitment to his promise of transformation that seems impossible. However, what we also learn is that without a fully prepared heart and mind in which we pursue this new life Jesus clearly professes that he would rather us not accompany the offering into his presence.
Serving with Change (Ephesians 4)
The apostle Paul left behind a lasting legacy in the many letters he wrote to churches and individuals important to the early Church. While at first glance all of the letters seem to discuss the same topics and ideas, as one devotes more time to them, the diversity within each letter separates them into distinct messages, rather than one massive “Paul Letter” section of the Bible.
The letter to the Ephesian Church expresses sound Christian theology; however, its “purpose driven” nature sets the letter apart from the others. Throughout the letter, Paul not only reminds us of the things that have been and will come as we continue to walk in the light of Jesus Christ, but also devotes significant attention to the idea that falling back into a previous way of cannot be an acceptable option if the experience of meeting Christ was true and Spirit-led.
The idea of “genuine change” is best expressed in Galatians 5. Paul compares this change of a person’s life and character to a fruit tree. Paul used the idea of “Christian Fruit,” first taught by Jesus, throughout his lifetime. Paul describes how as a person begins to change their life in Christ they witness the emergence and growth of “fruit,” namely love, joy, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, peace, gentleness, and goodness. It is in the discovery of this fruit that, Paul explains, a follower of Christ will become aware of the change promised by Christ emerging in their character as a Christian.
A theme of Paul’s letters, including the letter to the Ephesian Church, is the notion of a “new life” and an “old life.” This idea is far from original with Paul as it was first and best explained by Christ himself in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. According to Jesus there was a clear difference between a person’s old way of living and their new life as his disciple. Just as a baby, once born, does not return back to the mother’s womb, likewise a new Christian does not return to their “old life.”
However, this desire to stay away from the “old life” does not come through force or insistence by anyone but the person directly involved in the change. There must be some experience that plants the seed of this desire in the heart of the individual, a seed that continues to grow over time. Awareness of the distinction between the two lives emerges within a person, along with the desire to maintain the newly found direction of this “new life.”
When we are children there are many instances where we are headed straight for a mistake or a bad situation. Parents may try with all of their might to prevent children from experiencing the predictable outcome that might bring harm. However, there are also times where the parent knows that to allow the child to experience disaster may be the most effective decision. It may be that allowing the child to fall, so to speak, and allowing the child to experience falling will prompt an experience, not rules, that will encourage a change.
For example, when I was young I loved to play in the sink in our kitchen as my mother cooked or did housework. My mother would fill up the sink for me and then allow me to play in the water with my favorite toys, clad in a raincoat to protect me from the violent splashing that would ultimately ensue. However, one day my mother was not around to ask to fill the sink, and I saw an alternative in a large pot of water atop the stove. Unaware that the pot had been left to boil in preparation for pasta that had not yet been added, the only thing I saw was an opportunity for me, along with my toys, to explore new and exciting waters. Needless to say, what followed was a massive burn that left a sizable scar on my left hand that is still with me to this day. As a result of this experience, I did not stop my fun water game of splashing, raincoats and toys. What I came away with was a cautious awareness of pots and boiling substances on the stovetop. That burn gave me enough to know that I never wanted to make the same mistake again. The scar was a visible reminder of my decision and its consequences.
When Christians, like Paul, discuss the idea of a new life, many people assume that this is just cheap “Christian Lingo,” something we know is in the scripture but don’t know how to experience. Reading Paul’s desire for the Christians at Ephesus to “put off the old self” makes us aware that there’s something to be done there, but defining the “old self” can seem complicated and discovering the “new self” can be rather ambiguous and hard to comprehend. What is not difficult to understand is that both Jesus and Paul took this “new life” extremely seriously.
Jesus himself made it perfectly clear that to be a Christian and to represent his name in our new identity means carrying the burden of a cross that accompanies this “new life.” For some, this cross is heavy, splinter-ridden, and a burden. This perception of the “new life” can soon make returning to the “old life” without the cross look pretty appealing. Assuming that the cross means judgment, rules and impossible expectations makes burning oneself in the boiling water of the “old life” almost desirable. The difference between the Christian who has not truly encountered the living God who evokes change, and the Christian who has been born of the Spirit, is that the first has not truly understood the dangers of the boiling water, and the second has found that one burn was enough. The first saw no reason to change; the second saw that change was the only option.
Being changed by God is not something that happens to you but something that happens within you. The change is supported by the awareness that ahead of you is a well-lit path, and behind you the dark ground already travelled. Someone who has truly met Christ recognizes that in the darkness exists a world of mistakes already made and desires left unfulfilled. For this person, walking ahead into the well-lit path of “new life” with Christ is an opportunity to enter into a world of hope and promise. From this place, the decision to place the hand in the boiling water a second time would seem insane.
At the heart of the Christian’s transformation is an inner acknowledgment that to “go back” is not only counterproductive but counterintuitive. Going back is never an option. Service, bearing the cross in the new life, becomes a part of who you are, and less a list of things you are required to do. Service becomes more of an instinct and less a choice to be considered. Serving the king, the suffering servant, the great Teacher, becomes your lifelong desire, the essence of who you are and everything you do.
To know Jesus is to be made like him. By serving like him we truly find union with him. This union establishes us firmly on the rock that is Jesus Christ. It is then on this rock that we can honestly and confidently refer to ourselves as a “Christian.”