Summary: However, for many people, serving doesn't conjure up a positive image. Instead, they think of endless menial chores, cleaning up other people's messes, and catering to their vain whims. Yet the New Testament calls us to become servants of one another.
What do you think of when you hear the word serve? No, I don't mean the opening hit of the racket in a tennis match. I'm not even talking about your waiter or waitress at Shiela’s. I mean what does a servant look like? What picture comes to mind?
It's possible that you have a positive image. Perhaps you think of a soldier on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan serving his country. Maybe you think of a police officer serving her community, and on the side of her car it says, "To protect and to serve."
However, for many people, serving doesn't conjure up a positive image. Instead, they think of endless menial chores, cleaning up other people's messes, and catering to their vain whims. When they think of a servant, they think of someone bent over, crushed in spirit, and someone who has been stripped of their dignity. They think of being mistreated and taken for granted. A servant is someone with no ambition, low skill, little value and no will of their own.
And yet the New Testament draws the picture of servant time after time. The apostles picture themselves as servants. They commend their fellow ministers for being servants. You and I are called to be servants. In Galatians 5:13 we read our next one another statement. It goes beyond the call to love one another, to accept one another, and to live in harmony with one another. Here we are called to become servants of one another. "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love."
So, just what sort of image does the Bible want us to have of a servant? Interestingly, our English translations tone down Paul's words to make them easier for us to swallow. A literal translation of the end of Galatians 5:13 would read, "so use your freedom by making yourselves slaves to one another in love. Now there's a word that rubs us the wrong way. What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word slave?
But Paul isn't calling for oppression. This isn't permission for us subjugate one another to our will. Paul is calling for servanthood, not servitude. It is the difference between have to and want to. Servitude is imposed from the outside. Someone forces you. Servanthood grows from our heart. It blossoms from our own desire, rooted in our love for God and for others. Paul isn't talking about an obligation or duty that we have to others. Rather, he is talking about what we should freely want to do. We make our self the servant of another, because we love them. We desire to serve to serve them.
This does not come to us naturally or easily. Our sinful, human nature fights against this every step of the way. We want the spotlight. We want center stage. We want the attention, the credit, the glory. Our fleshly nature doesn't want to serve others, it wants to be served. This is why Paul warns that we should not use our freedom to serve our sinful nature, literally our flesh. Our flesh, our physical self, has been corrupted by sin. It is selfish by nature. It is focused entirely on what it wants and its appetites. Ours is a culture of me, mine, myself, and I.
Bill Hybels has written an excellent book on humility called Descending into Greatness. He points out that in our culture answers are wrapped around our appetites. "Does this fulfill my needs? Does it satisfy my sexual hunger? Quench my thirst for more? Feed my lust for power?" In the midst of all these appetites clamoring to be fed, comes this gentle but firm call to serve one another. Topple the idol of self. Think of the other person first. Set your own desires aside, and strangle the ravenous addictions of the flesh. Don't worry about the attention, the credit, or the glory, just do what needs to be done. Serve one another in love.
In this call to servanthood is one of the great mysteries of Scripture: The way up is down. Do you want to get higher? You need to go lower. The path to true greatness is paved with humble service. In Scripture, great leaders are great servants. Influential power is achieved through putting others first. The last shall be first. The way up is down. It turns the conventional wisdom of our culture upside down. Actually, it sets it right side up. It is our "Me" oriented culture that has turned everything topsy turvy.
This is one thing that Jesus tried real hard to impress upon his disciples. One time in Matthew 20 they got into a big fight over who would get to sit in the seats of honor next to Jesus in his kingdom. They were still thinking of the wrong kind of kingdom here. But here they are arguing over position and power, and listen to what Jesus tells them: