The Bible contains startling stories of slave girls and slave drivers, but what does it say about being a servant?
My children are great, and generally do what they’re told. But there are times when, if I ask them to help, they sometimes say, ‘Not now, Dad. I’ve been working all day, I’m too tired!’
I think Christians can be a little like that. We all like the idea of being a servant, providing someone else is doing the serving! But that isn’t of course how it should be. Although Jesus took the nature of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-11), he did this as an example of how we should serve, rather than how we should expect him to serve us (John 13:14-17, Matthew 20:25-28).
We may be Jesus’ friends (John 15:15), but what are we like as his servants? If our livelihood depended on us serving faithfully, say, in a stately home or large mansion, would we actually keep our job?
Later, during the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples, he provided them with a startlingly counter-cultural approach to greatness: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22:25-27).
As ‘slaves’ or ‘servants’ of Christ (Ephesians 6:6, 2 Corinthians 4:5), rather than being selfish, self-serving or self-absorbed, we should be self-controlled, self-sacrificing and self-effacing. We’re to be self-possessed, not self-obsessed!
But do we actually see ourselves as God’s servants, value others above ourselves and have a genuine concern for the welfare of others (Philippians 2:3-4)? Philippians 2:20-21 indicates that not everyone does! Could that be true of us, I wonder? As servants of our Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1), are we trustworthy, obedient, hardworking, enthusiastic and conscientious, at work or at play, at home or at church?
Perhaps you’re feeling tired of serving in church and have grown weary of well-doing. Maybe it feels as if you’re constantly helping out, but no one seems willing to help you! Don’t be afraid to make your needs known and ask for help; it’s possible people aren’t aware of your problems!
Although we shouldn’t be quick to stand on our ‘rights’, being a servant doesn’t mean being a doormat or a pushover. As creatures made in God’s image and likeness, servants deserve food, rest and consideration too!
I remember working for a particular Christian company, decades before my current job at MAF, that hadn’t got around to flexitime. I worked hard and because I was young, enthusiastic, energetic and unmarried, I put in far more hours than was required. Eventually, of course, I got more and more tired and finally decided to cut down on my hours for the sake of my health and only do what the job necessitated.
When my boss noticed me leaving the office at a reasonable hour, instead of thanking me for all the time I’d put in over the preceding years, he merely said, ‘Oh, I thought it was later than that! Oh well, I guess we’ll all be here tomorrow, working a bit later’.
Although I’d been happy doing my job ‘as working for the Lord, not for human masters’ (Colossians 3:23), the remark nevertheless stung, particularly since, working for a particularly poorly paying Christian organisation, there was no way I’d been serving mammon rather than God (Matthew 6:24)!
When 2 Corinthians 8 talks about equality in giving, verse 14 — ‘At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need’ — might equally apply to the principle of meeting other’s needs. As 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 makes clear, as Christians we’re called to comfort others ‘with the comfort we ourselves have received from God’.
It’s not a case of only a few people doing all the serving, but of everyone playing their part. It’s true that ‘each one should carry their own load’, but we are also called to ‘carry each other’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:5, 2). Serving isn’t about certain people giving and certain people receiving, but of a biblically-based reciprocity.
We’re called, whenever able, to share our time, energy, sympathy, empathy, finances, love, practical help and prayer. Luke 6:38 encourages us that, ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you’.
As part of our giving, we should be looking for ways to help, serve and offer hospitality without grumbling, shining like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:14-15; 1 Peter 4:9).
If we are generous with our time, talents, energy, service and money, we can have confidence knowing that ‘God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them’ (Hebrews 6:10).
We shouldn’t bless others in order that we might ourselves be blessed — a kind of insurance policy or down-payment on future blessing and assistance from fellow-Christians — that would be self-seeking. But, in the eternal economy of God, our kind and loving Father sees to it that, just as we meet the needs of others, so, in Christ, our own needs are met.
A friend who, over a long period of time, had gone through bereavement, unemployment, ill-health, a house move and problems with a child’s schooling, once said, ‘I felt as if the church had let us down, with no one able, or available, to meet our needs. We’d served the church in various ways but came to the point when we even ended up asking ourselves, “Why should we continue to help, when no one’s helping us?” I realise now that it was wrong of us to see things that way’.
And yet it’s all too easy to keep on giving out until you feel like giving up, or end up running on ‘empty’, with no one apparently there to refill the tank. We need others, but if we rely on them rather than placing our trust in God, we’ll always be let down.
In situations such as these, the caution contained in Psalm 146:3-5 is particularly relevant: ‘Do not put your trust … in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God’.
However helpful fellow believers may be, we need to look to God to meet our needs and give us the strength to serve. The church is made up of imperfect people. They may rise to the occasion, prompted by God and empowered by his Spirit, but they can also fail and leave us in the lurch. Perhaps they themselves are struggling and can barely cope, although that’s something we might not be aware of at the time.
But what would happen if, rather than helping others, we merely waited for others to help us — and everyone else did the same? Nothing would get done, and life at home, work or church would soon break down. And what would have happened if, instead of following his Father’s will, Jesus had followed his own: ‘If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42)?
There’s a danger, I think, in seeing the church as just another service industry and ourselves as customers. We may tithe, turn up or contribute to the church’s coffers, but that doesn’t mean we can go to the refund department if we’re not satisfied with the service we’re getting (or the service we’ve just attended!).
We’re fellow members of Christ’s body, not consumers looking for the best deal we can get from our church; whether the area we’re ‘shopping’ in lies in the youth work, pastoral support, stimulating conversation or the shoulder-to-cry-on department! As members of one body, we need to pull together and look after one another to ensure things function well.
When a persistently demanding child asks for something they can easily obtain for themselves but are unwilling to get, my wife sometimes says, ‘And what did your last slave die of?’ So let’s put away childish things and serve our Saviour as mature and sensible adults.
Of course, along with the duties and obligations that come with being God’s servant, come a number of beautiful blessings. Our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20) and we are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6). Having been set free in Christ (Galatians 5:1), we’re now God’s children and heirs, set free from slavery to the elemental spiritual forces of this world (Galatians 4:1-7).
There is, however, another, more sobering aspect. Matthew 10:24-25 reminds us that, ‘The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master’, with John 15:20 warning us, ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also’.
Drawing on God’s encouragement and grace, and the challenge of Scripture, let’s serve one another humbly in love (Galatians 5:13), thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17); using the gifts he has graciously given us (1 Peter 4:10), wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord (Ephesians 6:7).
A quote traditionally ascribed to John Wesley puts it well: ‘Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can’.
So let’s ask God to teach us anew how best we can serve the one who ‘made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness’ (Philippians 2:7), doing so for the sake of God’s people and those currently outside his kingdom.
Let’s make it our life’s goal to fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12), press on towards the goal (Philippians 3:14), run the race (1 Corinthians 9:24), gain the victor’s crown (James 1:12) and finally hear Jesus say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25:23).
Gary Clayton is married to Julie, the father of Christopher (14) and Emma (11), and is copywriter and editor at Mission Aviation Fellowship. To learn how MAF’s 128 light aircraft bring help, hope and healing to 27 of the world’s poorest, remotest and most vulnerable countries, visit www.maf-uk.org