Christians are called to love God and others. Love manifests itself in practical deeds of service. That means our call to love God and others is a call to serve.
The problem is, service is hard. It’s difficult to deny ourselves, consider the needs of others, and place their preferences above our own. It’s often painful to give time, money, and energy to friends, family, neighbors, and fellow church members. Service can be draining, time-consuming, costly. So we need all the help we can get to serve cheerfully and consistently.
Thankfully, God intends to make his people into Christlike servants, which means the Bible is full of the help we need. One potent source of instruction and motivation for service is Colossians 3.
The Paradoxical Secret of Service
Colossians 3:23 is the apostle Paul’s intriguing command to Christian slaves: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Not for men. That’s intriguing, because just one verse earlier Paul instructs slaves, “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (Colossians 3:22). Which is it, Paul? How do these back-to-back commands fit together?
Somehow, even when we’re serving another person (Colossians 3:22), we’re not to be working for them (Colossians 3:23). So, what does it mean to work for someone? The context helps us here. Verse 22 instructs slaves not to be motivated by a desire to please other people, but rather to fear the Lord. Verses 24–25 remind slaves that their reward for service will come from the Lord, and that punishment for wrongdoing will also come from the Lord:
. . . knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:24–25)
It seems that to work for someone means to serve them in order to secure their praise or avoid their punishment. Paul says we’re to serve others, but not because we hope for their reward or fear their wrath. It’s the Lord we’re looking to as we serve them.
When We Need People Less
We might express Paul’s teaching this way: Christians are to serve others more (Colossians 3:22) and need others less (Colossians 3:23–25). That brings us to a paradoxical truth that can liberate us for sacrificial service: the less we need others (whether it’s securing their praise or avoiding their censure), the more and better we will serve them.
Think about it: People let us down. They often fail to appreciate or thank us. They often criticize. What’s to keep us active in service to them? The answer is: rather than expecting (or fearing) something from them, we look to the Lord Jesus, who always keeps his promises and who already accepts us as his own.
By working for Christ (rather than other people), we become better (not worse) servants of other people. It’s paradoxical, but true. We don’t need their good opinion. We’re unafraid of their bad opinion. We’re freed to serve them better.
Landing the Plane
I recently traveled on an uneventful seven-hour flight with two hundred other passengers. Imagine if the pilot of my flight, as we approached the landing, had become deeply, obsessively concerned about how each of the two hundred passengers was evaluating his piloting. Imagine if he had begun to worry about a too-bumpy landing and the displeasure this would cause in first class and economy.
We’ve all seen little kids on sports teams trying so hard to please their competitive dads that they can’t help but fail. I suspect that an obsessive, passenger-pleasing anxiety in the pilot of my plane might have led to a crash. Thankfully, that didn’t happen! Instead of attempting to please two hundred passengers, our pilot focused on satisfying just one person: the air traffic controller in Providence, Rhode Island. Because the controller was his singular focus, he was able to serve all two hundred passengers much better (by getting us safely on the ground).
When we need others less, we serve them more.
Eight Ways and More
Some time ago, my wife and I spoke at a conference in the American Midwest. We were told that when we arrived at the airport, we should look for a guy named Craig, who would chauffeur us around during our stay.
After meeting Craig, we realized quickly that he was a highly accomplished and successful man. The task of driving us around for three days might well have seemed (to someone of his intellectual caliber and impressive résumé) just a bit too humble. But that thought seems never to have crossed Craig’s mind. He served us with his whole heart. Here are just some of the many ways he took good care of us:
- Craig got to the airport on time to pick us up (very important!).
- As we entered his car, we saw he had brought bottles of chilled water for us. In fact, every time he picked us up over the next three days, there were fresh bottles of water (they seemed to multiply like rabbits).
- Craig drove us from the conference venue to our hotel using a new route each time so that we could get to know the area better (he had thought about this beforehand).
- Craig was genuinely interested in getting to know my wife and me. He also shared things about himself, including some trials he and his wife have endured.
- Craig’s wife came along in the car several times so that she too could spend time with us, which made us feel even more welcomed and valued.
- Craig repeatedly told us that he would drop whatever else he was doing and give us a ride anywhere we wanted, at any time. We knew he meant it.
- When Craig left us at the airport on the last day, he and his wife got out of the car, stood on the sidewalk beside us, and prayed for us. It was deeply meaningful.
- Throughout our time, Craig seemed very happy to serve us, as though it was a treat for him — as though we were doing him a favor. The flavor of his service was joy.
Why did Craig serve us so well? I think it was because he wasn’t ultimately working for us. He certainly wasn’t desperate for our good opinion. Nor was he terrified of our bad opinion. After all, he barely knew us. Craig was working for the Lord Jesus. He didn’t need us. And because of that, he served us better.