When I was a young Christian, starting out as a ministry trainee in a church, I remember helping out at a church harvest supper. After helping clear up I was about to head home when the pastor took me to one side. He thanked me for my attitude in serving that evening. I walked home amazed at having such a great Lord as Jesus. I had simply been enjoying myself, mucking in with what needed doing. To find out that this was service was almost amusing, it was so good.
A few years later I also remember walking away from church, this time as the assistant pastor after the Sunday services. I felt relieved. I had done my bit – preached, led, talked with people. Now I was free! The rest of the day was mine to enjoy.
Something had broken in my spirit. Joyful service of Jesus had become a chore and a burden. Since then I have spotted this pattern in too many Christians I have known. One friend likened it to her faith being crushed under the weight of service and expectation in church.
There are various ways our service of Christ can become warped like this. For some of us it is because we fell into a wrong view of Jesus himself. We struggle to believe that he can really be as generous as he is. We think that there must be a catch if he is really going to love us and save us. That catch is that we will have to work hard for him if he is really going to keep his promises to us.
For others of us we are not trying to impress Jesus. Maybe you are like me and you are tempted to live for the approval of others around you. Perhaps the approval of your pastor or homegroup leader matters to you massively. You know that you are a faithful Christian because men and women at church, who you respect or trust, tell you that you are. It may be uglier, and you crave the fame of being a good Christian. It may be the subtler feeling that others need you and you couldn’t bear to let anyone down.
There will be more ways we warp the gospel so that Jesus becomes a God who lays heavy loads onto our shoulders. This is very strange, seeing as he is in fact the God who cries out, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11v28).
It may be that you are enjoying your Christian service at the moment, but you feel the beginnings of these temptations, or maybe you are nodding along with bitter agreement, in the same place I was as I walked home after church feeling relieved. Either way, the antidote to the poison of wrong service is to see that our service is never crucial. We are not primarily those who serve Jesus. Our identity is as those who are served by Jesus. We are not so much those who are servants of Christ, rather we are those served by Christ.
In Mark 10v45 Jesus says:
‘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.’
Jesus did not come so that you would serve him. He came to serve you. Either Christianity is about Jesus, a God who serves his people, or it isn’t Christianity at all.
Jesus came to serve. Jesus comes into our lives to serve us. There is no catch, there is just loving, humble, kind service by the Creator of the cosmos to and for us. Jesus does not wait to see if you will serve him, he simply serves you. His greatness is not that he can command the service of millions, it is that he serves millions.
If you follow Jesus, your relationship with him, your status before God his Father and the promise he gives to fill you with his Spirit will never depend on how you serve him. It is all about his service of you.
What do you really want? What is the desire of your heart? Maybe it is rest from the burdens and weariness of life. Maybe it is hope at a time when despair seems the only real option. Maybe it is someone who will love you faithfully. The desires of our heart, our deepest hopes and dreams, are precious. Jesus promises these to us on the basis of how he serves us, not on the basis of how we serve him.
All this is promised to us by the greatest act of service that anyone could do for another. All humanity, from Adam our first father, have turned away from the Lord. We have a God who is by his character a servant even though he is the Lord. We, on the other hand are servants who like to think we are lords. We love to rule, we love to lord it over each other. We love to gain respect, obedience, even fear. This is just one way we have turned our backs on God. We may not feel that we have wronged God, but he has given us everything and our lives so seldom show that.
My life is about John, not Jesus. If I treated my parents with as little love, concern, time or gratitude that I show to my God, you would despise me as a nasty son. We have turned from God.
Jesus says, ‘Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15v13). We might well agree. But we did not deserve to be counted his friends. Paul says that, ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5v8).
Jesus served us by dying for us. We were sinners and he died for us. We were his subjects and he died for us. It is an amazing thing to die for anyone, but to die for your enemies is generosity that is hard to grasp. It gets even harder to grasp when we see why he had to die for us. It is wonderfully kind that he would die for us, but why was it necessary? Our verse tells us that he gave his life as a ransom. He had to pay a price to rescue us, and that price was his very life.
This is because we had all cut ourselves off from God. When we turn our backs on God we turn our backs on the source of life itself. It doesn’t feel like it, but to reject God is to reject life. Jesus’ judgment on this is chillingly fitting. Those who reject him will live without him. He says that he will throw them ‘outside’ his kingdom, into the ‘darkness’ (Matthew 8v12). This is hell, to be cut off from God’s life and love. It is a conscious death.
Jesus will judge us, and we all deserve hell. I am so used to thinking well of myself that I find it horribly hard to believe that I deserve such a judgment from Jesus. But he loves us enough to warn us, to tell us again and again in the Bible.
He also loves us enough to pay a ransom to buy us out of this terrible situation. He gave his life, executed on a wooden cross outside the city of Jerusalem. As he died the sky went dark and he cried out that God had turned his back on him. Jesus went through hell. He went through this hell of being cut off from God his Father, the source of life and love. He went through my hell.
He died the death we deserve. That was the ransom. There is nothing more terrible and wonderful in all of history than the day when the unique and glorious Son of Man displayed the glory of his love for us by dying our death, enduring our hell, paying our ransom.
This is how Jesus serves you. And if he serves you like this, he is not going to suddenly turn around and give you a list of demands. Christ served us to death, to buy our lives and our freedom.
Jesus’ death transforms the relationship we have with him. It makes him our servant but it also shifts what it means when we serve him. His death brings us, his people, to him in marriage. We become his bride and he becomes our husband. It also brings us to God as a Father, not only as a King. So many blessings flow from these new relationships that we have with Father, Son and the Holy Spirit who the Father sends to live with us. One of them is that we now serve the Servant as a bride and as children.
This is why service of Christ that looks to him as our servant can be full of freedom and joy. To take one aspect of this new identity, we get to work with our Father. Not because he needs our help but because he enjoys our company. He helps us and gives us the Holy Spirit and covers over our mistakes. He loves us working with him because he loves us.
When you see it like this then it keeps on changing our service of God. How can I serve so that people will accept me if I realise that I am serving God as a child who’s Father delights in him? How can I serve to earn a blessing from God when he has adopted me and made me heir to everything?
This is the treasure of Christianity, not that we get to be good, not that we get heaven, not that we get blessing or joy or hope or peace. The treasure of Christianity is that we get God. We get to be with God as he works. We get to be with God as our Father. With him as our Father we do get everything else we long for, but more than that, we get him. Our service becomes part of this treasure.
When the Spirit shifts our eyes from ourselves and our service and onto our Servant, then it changes everything. It means that we can say ‘No’, and stop an area of service if it is killing our love for Christ. Even more wonderfully, it means that we can once again receive service as a blessing and a joy, a good gift from a kind Lord, because we have a very kind Lord who serves us day-by-day.
This article is based on Serving without Sinking: How to serve Christ and keep your joy, published by The Good Book Company, 2013