The Spiritual Disciplines: Service
September 2, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
The Spiritual Disciplines: Service
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Upon entering the world, Jesus made Himself nothing and took on the form of a servant.1 As Christians we, like Him, are called to serve our Christian brothers and sisters as well as others. Such service is a form of letting our light shine before others, which in turn gives glory to God.2 All Christian service is a beautiful and important part of our love for God, and while different Christians may perform different types of service, all service that honors God is honorable service.
In this article, I’ll address service specifically in the context of it being a Spiritual Discipline, rather than writing about Christian service in general. Service as a Spiritual Discipline is practiced both to serve others and as a sacrificial means of growing in Christlikeness. This is the same principle as with all the other Spiritual Disciplines.
When serving as a Spiritual Discipline, one chooses a specific form of service that helps strengthen an area one is weak in. For example, an executive who is used to being in charge and giving orders might help out in his or her church or at a soup kitchen in a subordinate position, following the direction of others, to specifically counteract their pride or a controlling or overbearing nature. Someone who craves attention might choose to serve others in a way that is anonymous. One who is selfish in regard to their time might commit to spending a certain number of hours each week serving others in need.
Service is a discipline when you are serving with a dual goal—helping others, and also helping yourself overcome in some aspect of your life which may be limiting your spiritual growth. Not all service is meant to be done as a Spiritual Discipline, and there are many times when we will serve solely out of our love for the Lord and others. However, those who are looking to grow spiritually, to train and strengthen themselves, can find service to be a beautiful, though sacrificial, means of doing so.
Dallas Willard expressed it this way:
In service we engage our goods and strength in the active promotion of the good of others and the causes of God in our world. Here we recall an important distinction. Not every act that may be done as a discipline need be done as a discipline. I will often be able to serve another simply as an act of love and righteousness, without regard to how it may enhance my abilities to follow Christ …But I may also serve another to train myself away from arrogance, possessiveness, envy, resentment, or covetousness. In that case, my service is undertaken as a discipline for the spiritual life.3
The motivation for service, whether done as a discipline or in the course of our daily life, can be found within Scripture. We are motivated by:4
- Gratitude: Serving is the right response to God’s goodness to us. Serve Him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things He has done for you.5
- Gladness: We serve out of gladness and not grudgingly:Serve the LORD with gladness!6
- Forgiveness: Like Isaiah, whose sins were forgiven and who then immediately volunteered to serve, we serve in response to the forgiveness shown to us: He touched my [Isaiah’s] mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. ”And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”7
- Humility: We serve motivated by humility: If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.8
- Love: We serve because we love God and others: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.9
When we are motivated to serve by gratitude, gladness, humility, and love for God and others, then whether the service is a discipline or not, we will be willing and happy to serve in whatever situation and by whatever means He has led us to—whether it is exciting and extraordinary or mundane. There is of course great excitement in some types of service, and it is usually more personally inspiring to be involved in those. But the excitement level shouldn’t really matter, and neither should one's role.
When Jesus washed His disciples' feet, He took on the work of a slave. In His day, no one but the lowest of slaves washed the feet of those who came to one’s house. That night in the upper room, Jesus—the one who had healed multitudes of the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and walked on water—knelt down and washed the filthy feet of those He loved and served.
When He had washed their feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”10
Jesus made the point that no matter what your spiritual standing, workplace position, wealth, or anything else that you or others may perceive places you above others, all of this is to be laid aside in serving others. When James and John asked for positions of authority over others, Jesus told them, You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.11 Jesus is shifting the focus off position or authority, and is pointing out that greatness in God’s eyes is found in serving. No matter what position or economic status a Christian may hold, that person is expected to serve God and others out of love, humility, and from the position of gratitude and forgiveness.
Serving in Love
Service done in love for God and others doesn’t seek external reward. It doesn’t require that others know about it. It doesn’t seek the applause or gratitude of others. It is content to be done in hiddenness and humility. It doesn’t distinguish between “small” or “big” service, as all service stems from the same motivation. The emphasis isn’t on the results. It also does not expect that the one being served will reciprocate. The delight is in the service itself. It is indiscriminate; it doesn’t seek to serve the high and powerful, rather it seeks to serve whoever is in need—which is often the lowly and defenseless. It is done faithfully regardless of feelings; it isn’t affected by moods or whims. Instead it disciplines the feelings and fills the need. It cares for the needs of others unpretentiously.12
Service as a discipline actively fights against recognition and the praise of others. Richard Foster makes the point this way:
Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits. Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service, but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. If we stoutly refuse to give in to this lust of the flesh, we crucify it. Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify our pride and arrogance.13
So what does service as a discipline look like? It begins with an attitude of service. It’s having a desire to serve, to help whenever and wherever help is needed. That might mean babysitting for neighbors, taking meals to families in a state of flux, or running errands for shut-ins. It might be hospitality, such as inviting people to your home for a meal. In a church or community setting, it could be setting up chairs for meetings, making snacks, cleaning up afterwards, or teaching a Bible class or assisting on a youth witnessing outing. In your personal outreach, it means witnessing to someone in need, perhaps someone who isn’t easy to be around. It’s tangibly showing love and outgoing concern for the needy. It’s lending a helping hand when needed. It’s using both your talents and your gifts of the Spirit to help in whatever way you can when there is a need.
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Foster lists some services that he considers to be part of the Discipline of Service:14
- The service of hospitality. We are to “show hospitality to one another without grumbling,”15 or as another Bible version renders it: Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay.16
- The service of listening. Love toward God starts with listening to His Word, so we should love others by learning to listen to them. When we learn to be quiet and listen to others, it helps teach us to get quiet before the Lord and listen to Him. We would do well to listen to others in silence and see if we don’t hear God speaking to us through them. Others often need a listening ear, not our opinions or answers.
- The service of bearing others’ burdens. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.17 Love is fulfilled when we bear one another's hurts and sufferings, weeping with those who weep, especially when with those who are traveling through the valley of the shadow of death. We can lift the sorrows and pains of others into the strong, tender arms of Jesus.
- The service of sharing the word of life with one another. When one receives a word from the Lord for another, we can share it in humility, not putting our spin or interpretation on it, but just sharing what God has said.
- The service of being served. It is an act of submission and service to allow others to serve us. We graciously receive the service rendered, without feeling we must repay it. In receiving it, we submit to the gift given to us in love and show respect for the gift and the giver.
Jesus said: I am among you as the one who serves.18 If we desire to become Christlike, then committing ourselves and learning how to serve others in love and humility as Jesus did, without seeking anything other than glorifying the Father, is a discipline worth practicing.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Philippians 2:6–7.
2 Matthew 5:16.
3 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperOne, 1988), 182.
4 Points taken from Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 117–122.
5 1 Samuel 12:24.
6 Psalm 100:2.
7 Isaiah 6:7–8.
8 John 13:14–15.
9 Matthew 22:37–39.
10 John 13:12–17.
11 Mark 10:42–44.
12 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 129–30.
13 Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 130.
14 Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 134–40.
15 1 Peter 4:9.
16 1 Peter 4:9 NLT.
17 Galatians 6:2.
18 Luke 22:27.