For the next few weeks I am zeroing in on the theme of service, because it is so critical to the life and witness of Christ’s Body and because “Sharing Christ by Serving Others” is St. John’s current vision focus. Last week we saw that to be part of the Body of Christ is to serve others even when they are difficult or demanding, and to be served all the same even when weare. This week I want to answer a question: Is it OK to get something out of serving others?
On the one hand, the Bible warns against making a performance out of our good deeds. Take Matthew 6:1-4 for example, where Jesus gives us this admonition: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Years ago, a major network executive donated ten million dollars to the United Nations in an effort to pay off the United States’ nonpayment of dues. He announced his act of generosity on national news, broadcast on every major network including, of course, his own, and made the front page of many papers. “Truly truly,” Jesus would say, “he received his reward” (Matthew 6: 2).
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster makes a distinction between self-righteous service and true service. Self-righteous service is “impressed with the ‘big deal’…. It enjoys serving, especially when the service is titanic….Self-righteous service requiresexternal rewards….seekshuman applause.” He goes on to say that “true service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service….Welcomes all opportunities to serve….rests contented in hiddenness….ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need….quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for the needs of others” (Foster, 128-129).
So, in serving others we need to avoid the temptation to make it all about us. Having said this, we should avoid the opposite extreme: the idea that serving is commendable only if we do not receive anybenefit or pleasure from doing it. This was the view of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He begins by making the valid point that human beings should never be served as means to an end, but as ends themselves. We should not help someone merelyto use them, to derive benefit from them personally, but because the moral law compels us to do so. The problem is that Kant also denied the value of motivations like friendship, love, or even joy. If we are motivated to serve others by such things, said Kant, our actions fail the moral test. The Bible rejects this notion that we should neverseek the joy or pleasure we gain from serving others! Not only is it a silly idea, it’s impossible. As my wife the psychotherapist reminds me, no action we take on behalf of another can be totally self-less. And, may I add, we shouldn’t try. There is joy and pleasure in serving others, and that’s as it should be. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards devoted an entire sermon to “The Pleasantness of Religion (1723)” making the point that “Religion…begets love and peace, good will one toward another, brotherly kindness, mutual benevolence, bounty and a feeling of each other’s welfare.”
To sum up, God desires joyful service, not selfish service. As Jesus’ followers we don’t do good or serve others for material gain, social advancement, or so that others may think more highly of us. Rather, we serve others because there is joyin helping those in need, in mutual encouragement, in bringing more of heaven to earth, and in serving the One who has served and saved us by His grace (Mark 10:45). Hope to see you soon…
Next Week: Serving When It’s Killing You