The Secret to Serving Christ
For Christians, good deeds cannot be an end in themselves. Successfully serving God requires more.
When I was a teenager, I enjoyed visiting my pastor’s study. His bookshelves were sprinkled with interesting knickknacks from his many years of ministry and his travels to various parts of the world. The memento I was most impressed with was a plain white hand towel. On it were embroidered three words: Be great. Serve.
That message packs a punch. It is one Jesus Himself taught to His disciples. Knowing the twelve were arguing about who would be the greatest among them in the coming Kingdom, Jesus declared, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). In God’s economy, greatness requires humility.
Servanthood is not something we naturally think of as a manifestation of greatness. A commanding presence, yes. A clear vision of the future, absolutely. Charisma and charm, certainly a plus. But most leadership books do not extol the servant-leader. God does, however; and that fact alone should cause us to think about how we are to serve.
Service itself is not in short supply. Nearly all professions, from doctors to postal workers to plumbers, serve others in one way or another. Civic clubs raise money for parks and provide underprivileged children with Christmas presents. Prison work crews and students in the National Honor Society alike clear debris from the shoulders of highways as a service to their communities.
Motivation is what distinguishes service from servanthood. A business may serve the public and meet a need, but its endgame is still profit. For Christians, good deeds cannot be an end in themselves. Being a servant of the Lord demands a different type of motivation, one generated by the love of Christ, for the glory of God.
Our motivation should stem from our recognition of the love Christ has for us (2 Cor. 5:14). When we consider that Jesus “died for all,” we should be able to “live no longer for [ourselves], but for Him who died for [us] and rose again” (v. 15).
And our service should be the natural result of our love for Christ. Following His resurrection from the dead, Jesus met with His disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where He publicly restored His disciple Peter to fellowship after Peter had denied Him three times prior to Christ’s crucifixion.
Three times the resurrected Lord asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter affirmed His love, Jesus gave him a commission for service: “Feed My lambs. . . . Tend My sheep. . . . Feed My sheep” (Jn. 21:15–17). Love for Christ precedes service for Him.
Servanthood also must be motivated by our desire to see God glorified through Christ. Peter said we should serve so “that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever” (1 Pet. 4:11); and it ought to be done with the understanding “the end of all things is at hand” (v. 7).
Glorifying God means to make God’s uniqueness and greatness known to a lost and dying world. Or, as one preacher put it, bringing glory to God means nonbelievers change their opinions of God because of what they see in you. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Himself charged believers, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
When it comes to serving the Lord, not just any motivation will do. The works of self-service amount to wood, hay, and stubble; but service motivated by Christ’s love for us and our love for Him, with the purpose of glorifying God through Christ, is like gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor. 3:11–13).
When he was 12 years old, Ian Thomas trusted Christ for salvation. Like many Christians, he wanted to serve the Lord any way he could. “Out of a sheer desire to win souls,” he said, “to go out and get them, I was a windmill of activity until, at the age of nineteen, every moment of my day was packed tight with doing things. . . . Thus by the age of nineteen, I had been reduced to a state of complete exhaustion spiritually, until I felt that there was no point in going on.”1
Major Thomas, who later became a great evangelist, learned what many of us need to realize—serving Christ, even when rightly motivated, must be done in God’s strength, not our own. Thomas later wrote that believers who rely on their own strength “are lamps without oil, cars without gas, and pens without ink, baffled at their own impotence.”2
Indeed, Peter taught this very point to the early church: “If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies” (1 Pet. 4:11). Serving God in our own strength is a recipe for disaster. It’s easy to minister to people we love; but serving others, that’s another story.
Human love has its limits (Rom. 5:7). Jesus’ love knows no bounds. In fact, Jesus’ earthly ministry was to a nation that saw the miracles of God but rejected the Son of God (Jn. 1:11). Jesus laid down His life for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). Ministering with a profound, selfless love is impossible without the Lord’s empowerment.
Of course, few people start out intending to serve the Lord in their own strength; but it’s an easy trap to fall into. We can hold a meeting or teach a Bible study without asking God to supply the strength we need for the task. Ministry without God’s strength is like trying to steer a sailboat without wind: You can persevere, but you won’t get far. That’s why God tells us, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).
Martha and Mary were sisters, both followers of Jesus. When Jesus visited them, Martha resented her sister for listening to Jesus teach while she was breaking her back in the kitchen. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” she asked. “Therefore tell her to help me” (Lk. 10:40).
What began as a ministry of loving hospitality to the Lord became drudgery for Martha, embittering her against her sister. “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41–42).
A furrowed, sweat-beaded brow doesn’t please the Lord as much as a heart intent on sitting at the Master’s feet. God doesn’t want us to serve Him grudgingly (2 Cor. 9:7). Rather, He tells us to serve “without grumbling, . . . as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:9–10).
Serving God requires the proper motivation, the Lord’s strength, and genuine humility and graciousness. God has reserved this great privilege of service for those He has redeemed. He has given to us freely, and now we should freely give (cf. Mt. 10:8).
- Major W. Ian Thomas, The Saving Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961), 8.
- Major W. Ian Thomas, “Religious or Christian?” cited in Excerpts from the Writings of Major W. Ian Thomas, christinyou.net (christinyou.net/pages/ianthomas.html).