The gospel is not only the foundation for our service; it also radically purifies our motivation for service. In fact, serving others for reasons other than the gospel actually doesn’t make a lot of sense because of the philosophical contradictions beneath the surface.
Take, for example, the predominant worldview of Western culture today—the worldview of evolutionary process. In this thinking, the innate strengths and weaknesses of mankind best dictate what or who survives. So anytime help is extended to someone who is weak, this attacks the premise behind what is naturally best for mankind. Anytime a weak child or helpless person is served, the evolutionary worldview would maintain that humanity is assaulted because the weak are given an illogical, unnatural opportunity for extended survival. If it is really best for the weak to die so the shallow end of the gene pool can be cleared away, as evolutionary theory asserts, then serving others is hypocritical.
The human heart is immensely complex and deceitful. Therefore, a plethora of other motivations can claim to motivate our desire for service. In an altruistic society like ours that values volunteerism, for example, people (even believers) serve others for all kinds of reasons void of gospel motivation.
Some of us are motivated to serve because we value compassion. We see the terrible struggle someone else is facing, and it moves us emotionally. We imagine how life would be if we were in the same situation, so we do something out of sympathy, out of empathy. This sounds good at first. After all, Jesus once saw the harassed and helpless crowds and was moved by them (Matt. 9:36).
It is true that compassion often serves as a great starting point for service, but unless compassion is connected with something deeper, it is unsustainable. Because of our sinfulness, causes that appeal to compassion lose their impact as our senses are slowly numbed to the pain around us. Do you remember the first time you saw the commercial with the starving children? Do you still respond with the same sinking feeling in your gut? Compassion that’s only connected to human emotion quickly wanes in impact. Only compassion firmly connected to the gospel is sustainable.
Compassion linked to the gospel is compassion that goes beyond merely observing hurting people; it sees hurting people and realizes that Jesus loves them furiously. Ultimately, then, it’s not our compassion but the compassion of Jesus that fuels and sustains our desire to act on another’s behalf. When we remember how gracious and compassionate Christ has been to us, our compassion is as sustainable as our remembrance of the gospel. Without Him, compassion will slowly but surely devolve into a weepy moment that we forget as soon as the commercial ends or someone breaks the mood with a funny joke.
Some are motivated to serve because of guilt. Many people feel guilty for their over-indulgent lifestyles, so to alleviate the guilt . . . they serve. She thinks, “Buying seven Coach purses is fine as long as I donate my old ones to the homeless shelter downtown.” Dropping some clothes in the donation bag numbs a person’s self-awareness of his or her materialism.
Sadly, many church leaders unintentionally use guilt as a quick and easy motivator to recruit volunteers “into ministry.”
- “Serve one hour a week, and you’ll go home feeling awesome.”
- “Feeling empty? Well, just help once a month in the preschool area.”
- “You’ve lived for ‘you’ all week; live just this one hour for our students.”
Guilt-driven serving is the antithesis of Jesus-driven serving, because alleviating guilt is ultimately about the person serving rather than the person being served. The person who serves to remove the guilt surrounding his selfish lifestyle is really serving himself.
Others serve out of sheer force. When we were growing up, we didn’t have to perform a certain number of “community service hours” in order to graduate. In many of today’s schools, however, students are required to “volunteer” for class credit. In some churches, youth pastors require students to complete a specific number of serving hours, like a judge passing out community service sentences to those charged with a DUI.
Have you ever called a customer service hotline just furious? Consider the poor guy who answers the phone. He has done nothing to you. He is not responsible for what was or was not in the box. He is simply operating under the policies that were set for him by someone higher up on the organizational food chain.
You chew him out about how he ruined your kid’s birthday party, and he’s making around $8 an hour to listen to you scream at him. He says things like, “Well, that cable can be purchased at our online store,” which makes you angrier because you already bought the product. He’s getting destroyed by you, yet he continues to calmly serve you. Because it’s his job.
But what’s he really thinking? Do you think he’s wishing you a Merry Christmas? Do you think his motivation is empathy? “Oh, this poor guy. I’m hearing your story about not being able to pitch the game onto your massive theater wall so your buddies can watch it. I’m tearing up. I’m misty-eyed.” Do you think he is motivated by compassion? Do you think he feels guilty that you are not happy? No, he’s being forced. He’s serving others because he’s being forced to serve others.
But when he clocks out, he will not serve you with patience. When he clocks out, he will not wonder how he can help you. Forceful service is very temporary. It melts neither the heart of the person serving nor the person being served.
The gospel crushes force-driven service, reminding us that Christ wants our hearts when we serve, not merely our physical presence. He wants us to delight in Him as we join Him in serving those around us.
Sometimes we serve others out of pride. It’s a way to elevate ourselves above others who prove their selfishness by sitting on the couch. Prideful service is never private service; it’s always public service. Prideful service always results in the serving person feeling the need to give a testimony about their experience—to prove how “humble” they’ve been. When service is based on flighty compassion, guilt, force, or pride, God doesn’t react too kindly. When Israel, the covenant community of faith, was presenting sacrifices to God with hearts far from Him, God rebuked them:
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” (Isa. 1:10–13 ESV)
God was saying, “Do you really think I need bulls from you? Do you think this thing is about bulls and goats? If you need to feed Me, we’re in trouble here, aren’t we? If I need you to serve Me, then how would I ever be capable of serving you?” Service as an attempt to earn God’s favor is not only futile, it is repulsive to Him.
In the New Testament, Jesus similarly and aggressively targeted the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’” (Matt. 5:27 ESV). One may reason that adultery is an act, right? It’s not an idea; it’s an act. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (v. 28 ESV).
Jesus was saying, “If you’re not committing adultery because of some sort of white-knuckled ‘I know it’s not right so I shouldn’t do it,’ then you’re not free. I have come to set you free from this. I have come to transform your heart so your actions are transformed, not because of self-will but because of a new spirit.”
He said the same thing about our temper: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder’” (Matt. 5:21 ESV). Now murder is an act. It’s not just an idea; it’s an act, right? “But I say to you,” says Jesus, “that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (v. 22 ESV). Do you see that Jesus and the Father are very interested in the motives that drive our actions? You can do the right thing with the wrong motive, and God will always call it sin.
But here is the truly remarkable thing: the gospel doesn’t just push us outward to serve; it even makes up for what we lack in that very act of service. How many times have you done something for someone else, thinking your motives were pure, only to realize later they were far from it? The really amazing news is that this is yet another situation for you to remember what God has done for you in Christ. God can still use what you did for His honor, all the while forgiving you for your selfish motives and using the realization of your true motives to conform you more and more to the image of Jesus.