Deep down inside of most of us there is an ache for an illusive happiness, or joy, that seems just out of reach. We believe that we might find this joy when we,
- master some method
- conquer some obstacle
- develop a stronger will
- climb to a new height
This comes from the American culture we’ve grown up with. We are raised to believe that we “are masters of our own destiny”, and that the world is not going to “give” us anything. Consequently, aggressiveness is applauded as ambition. Forcefulness is considered a virtue, and those who know how to work the system are admired. Selfishness is not only acceptable . . . it is a way of life.
These American ideas run counter to the teaching of Jesus and Paul. Turn to Mark 10 and listen to this encounter between Jesus and two of his key disciples,
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. [I bet that is an understatement] Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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 10:35-45 (NIV)]
James and John weren’t bad guys . . . they were faithful, they believed. They saw an opportunity and they went for it. You know the old saying, you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t ask. Sure, it may look like they were trying to “edge out” their friends . . . . but career and friendship must remain separate.
Notice how Jesus responds. He tells the disciples that their focus is wrong. They are looking to muscle their way into positions of honor and influence. They believe, if they can get the power, the position, the title, the notoriety, life will be good. They will know joy. Jesus tells them that they are mistaken, the key to being great is to become a servant. Yes, that is correct. Jesus says the way up, is down. The way to advance is to take a lower position. The way to influence is to serve not give the orders.
In John 13 we read,
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. . .The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand that I have done for you?” he asked them. You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that s what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. [John 13:1-5; 12-15]
Jesus, the Son of God washed the feet of His followers. He even washed the feet of the one who would betray Him. Jesus took the position of a servant . . . and you and I are called to do likewise.
In Philippians 2, Paul teaches the same thing,
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:1-4]
Paul begins with a series of rhetorical questions. It is as if Paul said, “Since you say you are united with Christ, and you say you have found great comfort in your relationship with Him and the work of His Spirit within you . . .then certain things should be true of your life.”
Paul says if these people are true believers, they will will work together. They will love each other. And they will serve each other. There is that concept again . . . servanthood. This servant attitude I believe is the key to our unity and the finest expression of our love. So, let’s try to understand what it means to live as a servant.
IT MEANS WE GIVE BEFORE WE GRAB
I realize that this sounds kind of crass . . . but it is the right picture. We spend a good portion of our life looking out for ourselves. We are constantly pushing and grabbing. Let’s face it, it is the American Way. We are raised believing that the one who is more forceful is the one who gets the most power. But this is a myth.
The Bible tells us that the servant is the one who is most exalted. The servant is the one who is honored by God. The servant is the one who is most likely to reach others with the gospel. But how hard this is for us.
Is it just me or do you see your aggressiveness come out when you are in a crowd? I remember when I lived in Chicago there was a real science involved with pushing your way forward in a crowd. I had a strategy for coming home from Seminary at the beginning of “rush hour”. There is a spot on the highway near O’Hare airport where ten tollbooths empty into four lanes of traffic. At rush hour you need a strategy and I had one. As long as I was in a particular lane I could keep moving forward and “edge everyone else out.”
You may see it in the lines at Wal-Mart or other stores. You plan a strategy to get to the shortest line before everyone else does. You may have strategies for keeping other people from getting “your seats” at the football games. Some people come hours before the game so they can claim seats before others.
These are all signs of this aggressiveness where we are functioning out of this “selfish ambition”. The only person we are concerned about is ourselves. But it is not just in crowds . . . we seek to grab the spotlight, the credit, the advantage in many areas. .
- we trumpet our good deeds so the world will applaud us
- we perform our good deeds so the world will notice us
- we gravitate to those who can enhance our position and drift from those who may stain our reputation
- we monopolize a conversation so the focus will stay on us
- our prayers are often consumed with arguments as to why God should give us what we want
The following piece is an honest reflection. Maybe you will see yourself in these words,
I am like James and John. Lord, I size up other people in terms of what they can do for me; how they can further my program, feed my ego, satisfy my needs, give me strategic advantage.
I exploit people, ostensibly for your sake, but really for my own sake.
Lord, I turn to you to get the inside track and obtain special favors, you direction for my schemes, your power for my projects, you sanction for my ambitions, you blank check for whatever I want.
I am like James and John.
Change me, Lord. Make me a man who asks of you and of others, what can I do for you? [Improving Serve p. 94, 95
In order to have a servant heart, we must fight these tendencies in ourselves. We must pray for the Lord to change us. We must ask that God would help us to see beyond ourselves.
WE WILL SERVE GOD AND NOT OURSELVES
Rather than seek our own glory and pursue our own agenda, the servant of God is concerned about only one thing . . . honoring the Lord. The true servant doesn’t care if they get the credit as long as God gets the honor.
It’s similar to the way things are in athletics. If you play on a team the goal must be the team and not the individual. Sometimes the running back must block. Sometimes the big hitter needs to sacrifice the runner along, sometimes the star shooter has to pass the ball to a teammate. The goal is the team. For many years Michael Jordan played on teams that couldn’t win the championship. That all changed when Michael realized that he needed to get everyone involved. When they played as a team . . . they won. When Michael tried to do it all himself, they didn’t.
Business experts tell us that you can ‘t be effective or successful unless you know what your goal is. Once you have your goal, everything must work toward reaching that goal. Everyone in a factory must be working for the same end. Everyone is a sales business is working for the same goal. if you don’t know the goal, you can’t reach it.
The servant of God knows the goal. The true goal is to bring honor to Christ and to bring as many people to a knowledge of Christ as possible. If that is our goal we must do whatever is necessary to reach that goal. It may mean reaching out to someone we don’t know very well. It may mean serving in a position that is not glamorous. It may mean working in the background. It doesn’t matter . . .the goal is not our glory, but His.
You know, Lord, how I serve You With great emotional fervor In the limelight. You know how eagerly I speak for You At a women’s club. You know how I effervesce when I promote A fellowship group. You know my genuine enthusiasm At a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder If You pointed to a basin of water And asked me to wash the calloused feet Of a bent and wrinkled old woman Day after day Month after month In a room where nobody saw And nobody knew. -Ruth Harms Calkin [Improving Serve p. 43]
WE WILL WORK ON OUR FAILURES RATHER THAN THOSE OF OTHERS
Paul tells us that we will “consider others to be better than ourselves.” The principle is not hard to understand. Paul is not saying that we are “inferior” to others. His command has nothing to do with the kinds of prejudice that is so much a part of our society. We are not to consider others better than us because of their race, their socio-economic status, their gender, their experience or age. We are to consider others better than us because we don’t know their heart . . . . but we do know ours.
We are to be fierce and painfully honest in looking at our lives while giving the benefit of the doubt for others. I know that I often do things for selfish motives. I know that my thoughts sometimes are not honoring to God. I know that sometimes I am manipulative in my methods. I know that sometimes I am doing something only because others are looking. I don’t know the same about you.
We’ve said it many times, we live by a double standard. We want others to attribute to us the best possible motives for anything we do and we want people to always give us another chance because “we didn’t mean it” (even though often we know that is exactly what we meant). At the same time we are asking for charity we are impugning the motives of others. It doesn’t matter what their objections are, we always suspect an ulterior motive. Paul seems to advise that we turn things around. Our job is to be ruthlessly honest about our own faults and very slow about attacking others on their faults.
The true servant is so aware of their own spiritual state that they would never presume to point their finger at another. They are so humbled by God’s grace to them that they are eager and willing to share it with others.
WE WILL NOTICE THE NEED THAT OTHERS HAVE
Paul said, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The servant of God is a person who is aware of others around him. They are tuned in to the needs of those around them. They are always aware of the struggles that others are going through.
Much of the time we are so aware that we are present that we don’t even notice that others are present. We are so wrapped up with our needs, our impressions, our goals, that we don’t have time to consider others. But the servant is different.
I remember a little Chick Tract that I read when I was a kid, it was called, “Holy Joe”. It was a little comic book that told the story of a Christian man who went into the service. He wouldn’t swear like the rest of the guys and they made fun of him. When he got up early in the morning to pray the men hurled insults at him. One morning they all threw their boots at them. But when these soldiers woke up, their boots were polished and put in their place. The servant heart of the soldier won the hearts of the other soldiers. He knew that they needed to know the love of Christ and he demonstrated it for them.
James Boice tells of a Christian who lived in China. He was a poor rice farmer, and his fields lay high on a mountain. Every day he pumped water into the paddies of new rice, and every morning he returned to find that a neighbor who lived down the hill had opened the dikes surrounding the Christian’s field to let the water fill his own. For a while the Christian ignored the injustice, but at last he became desperate. He met and prayed with other Christians and came up with this solution. the next day the Christian farmer rose early in the morning and first filled his neighbor’s fields; then he attended to his own. The neighbor subsequently became a Christian, his unbelief overcome by a genuine demonstration of a Christian’s humility and Christlike character. [Boice p. 107]
This is true servanthood. . . . it is caring for another. It means learning to listen with your eyes, your ears, and your heart. It is putting service before rights, ministry before convenience. It’s an attitude. And this attitude comes from the transformation Christ brings.
We will talk more about this next week, but the best way for us to understand what it means to have a servant heart it to look at Jesus. He set aside the privileges of Heaven to become a man. He traded the glory of Heaven for the humble trappings of a stable. He gave up sleep so He could pray for the lost. He gave up His privacy, so He could heal the sick. He gave no regard to his reputation but instead took time to visit with a woman of Samaria with a checkered past. He patiently taught His disciples the same lessons again and again until they finally understood. He washed the feet of the ones who had vowed to serve Him. And in the ultimate act of servanthood. He willingly gave his life on the cross for our redemption. Jesus is our example. If you don’t understand what needs to be done . . . look at Him and it will be clear.
The surprising formula for joyful living is simple: if you want to know joy, give of yourself to the Lord and to those around you. It seems like such an odd prescription, doesn’t it? But if you will think about your life you will see the wisdom of what is being said. Haven’t some of the most satisfying times of your life been those times when you freely gave of yourself to a project without any concern about what others would say? You may have known a great satisfaction and joy after visiting someone who was sick. Or maybe it was the sweet satisfaction that came from making a quiet contribution to a project that brought joy to another. Wasn’t there a deep joy in those times? Wasn’t there a satisfaction unlike anything you have found before?
May I give some simple suggestions for how we might cultivate a servant heart,
- remind yourself how foreign the servant heart is to your nature. Make servanthood and humility an issue you are conscious of. Bring the matter to the front of your mind.
- constantly work at being a giver rather than a taker. Pick up that paper lying on the sidewalk (rather than pretending you don’t see it), do the dishes, take out the garbage (instead of balancing one more item on top), help someone clean up without being asked, make a visit without being asked to do so, do what will please another without whining about it or resisting it.
- give up an evening to help another with a project. The most precious gift we have is “time”. Give someone the gift of time.
- Rake a neighbor’s lawn, cut their grass, shovel their walk.
- Stop and talk with someone on the road (and act like you have nothing else you need to do).
- Do some act of kindness . . . and then tell no one. (That’s the hardest for me.)
- Be alert to a burden that another is carrying and then do something tangible to lighten their load (do some of their chores, run one of their errands, make a meal).
- Give up what you want to do to do something for another.
Please realize that none of these things will be easy. We will need to fight to act as servants to start with. We will resist, we will rationalize, we will make excuses. And we will lack the joy that could be ours.
But can you imagine the change that would take place if people began to demonstrate a servant’s heart? There would be less conflict, there would be less hurting and lonely people in the world. The world would see Jesus in us. The world would be as attracted to the church today as it was to the church in the first century. People would recognize that there is something different about us. They would recognize that we actually seemed to care. And then they might come to believe that God cares to . . . and who knows, they might even turn to the one who will lead them to Heaven in the world to come . . . and to the joy of servanthood in the present.