“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
- Galatians 5:13-14
At this time every year at UPS, someone goes around asking about any volunteer work or community service that any employee has done, seeking to tally up the number of hours and workers, I suppose, to tack onto the UPS public relations and give it a nice front. I was the last person in my immediate area (about 30 of us work together), and the lady came to me desperately hoping that I had some volunteer hours of service after having gone to everyone else and no one sharing that they had done or are currently doing any type of volunteer work or community service.
I shared with her that if she counted my involvement in my local church, then I could give share with her what I am/have been doing. My new supervisor asked me, “You do volunteer work?” The lady who knew me responded, “Yeah, he’s a minister. You didn’t know that?” Stricken by that reality he looked aghastly and replied, “Are you serious? You’re a minister?”
After that moment, I began thinking about how selfish we are in our society and how much I have bought into that lie. Then I began thinking about the motivations of worldly service and how much that confirmed our selfishness. Let me explain.
There are three reasons why I believe folks outside of Christ serve. The first reason is self-promotion
. We are taught this throughout our life. For instance, why are you encouraged as a high school student to get involved in the community and help out with organizations and services to the needy, the elderly, and the poor? It is because such acts of service are required to promote yourself as a student whether it be the National Honor Society or for a college scholarship. When the beauty pageants are on television (I have to watch them with my wife and always guess who’s going to win), it is not only a competition of who is most beautiful, but also who does the most community service and has the best record of volunteerism. It is without question that a real reason why, whether it is for education, employment, or contest, people serve for self-promotion.
The second reason why I believe people serve is for reward
. In a general sense, some people serve because of the good feeling they get out of helping people out in a time of need. Who hasn’t enjoyed the warm fuzzy when you have done a good need of service when someone need it most? But this sense of reward goes even further can carries much weightier significance. You see, many do such charitable works to develop a good-works resume in hopes that their good works will outdo their bad works and therefore give them a greater chance of going to heaven. If the reward of eternal life is to be earned, then the self-recompense must be guaranteed by a life of continual service. For many, this is their only security, their assurance of heavenly pay-back.
Finally, some people serve as an act of retribution
. Often the case is with a child who has disobeyed their parents, what is required of them is to do extra chores around the house. In the court system, a criminal who has committed a crime not deserving of jail time will often have to do so many hours of community service. Therefore, the service they provide to the community is a means of punishment and payback for the things they have done wrong.
As I look back at these three motives, I find self at the very center. Whether we are wanting to improve ourselves and our status in life, or benefit from the sense of earthly or heavenly reward for our good works of charity and benevolence, or if we are wanting to free ourselves from the punishment handed down to us, we serve with ourselves at the center.
So it makes perfect sense why the world outside of Christ largely doesn’t serve others. If they don’t want self-promotion, self-congratulation, or need self-vindication, then the self will be content to eat, drink, and be merry. The most supererogatory acts of mankind are plagued with this reality, and the sad irony is that when life is through, a life spent centered on oneself is a life tragically wasted.
Such is not the life for the Christian
. We have called to serve, not because we are at the center but because Christ Jesus is the center of everything we do in life. Whether we give a cup of cold water or provide meals for the poor, we do this in Jesus’ name
. This is what it means when Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That verse does not make sense to the natural mind. When the world looks at our works and appraises our acts of charity, the miracle is that they do not
look at us and say, “What a great and noble person you are!” but rather “What a great and glorious God he must know!” If our lives of service as Christians were to draw attention to ourselves, then the verse would conclude, “ . . . see your good works and give glory to the one who serves.” This is blasphemous and cannot be, for everything in life and death for the Christian is to the praise, honor, and glory of Jesus Christ who came not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
We know Him as the Suffering Servant – he who bore our sins by laying down his life for us. A life of sacrifice without which we would never know what true love looks like, for John tells us, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16; cf. 4:9-11). Indeed, it is no greater love than this, than someone lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13). So this is the love which we have as Christians, and this is the motivation for which we serve. Paul reminds us that the manner in which we serve one another is not through self-promotion, self-reward, or self-vindication, but through love—a love that was demonstrated on the cross where Jesus suffered as a Servant and gave Himself unreservedly and undeniably for sinners and the good pleasure of His Father.
It is true that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but He is also the Servant of servants. Jesus was skilled in the undignified ministry of foot-washing and leper-touching, of putting the needs of others before his own, and embodied the fullness of true servanthood in the giving of his life. Furthermore, this servant reminds us that “a servant is not above his master” and that “it is enough for the servant to be like his master” (Matthew 10:25). If our Master so loved and so served, then it is enough that we should be like him and follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21), even if they call us sons and daughters of Beelzebul. After all, when we have done all that we have been commanded, the only true response is, “We are unworthy servants
; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).
Being forgiven by free grace, we have been set free from the bondage of sin. Our freedom, according to Paul should not inspire us to indulge in the flesh our selfishness, but to become joyful bondservants who are in love with our Master. The freedom He gave us is the means in which we can give ourselves to one another in love; therefore, let us, dear brothers and sisters, so love and so serve that our world is brought face to face with the love of God which constrains us and causes us to “do everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:17).