I’ve seen the cartoon many times. The little man is in the middle of a lake when his boat springs a leak. He plugs it with his finger and another leak starts, so he plugs that one with the finger on his other hand. Soon, the poor little guy is all twisted up, using every spare body part to plug all the holes. A final look of shocked resignation comes across his features as the pressure continues to build up, a last volcanic-like rush of air gushes out, and the boat sinks.
This is the image that comes to my mind when I hear people talking about service. A person whose downfall is ultimately their desire to keep everything going, to keep everything afloat. Like the little guy in the boat, someone who always sacrifices in the name of serving the church ends up sinking to the bottom of the lake. I should know. I’ve been that person.
Serving other people is important, a command even. If we want to be like Jesus, then we must serve others. In fact, teaching my kids to serve others is a main focus in my day to day parenting. Still, I think our view of service needs to change. Perhaps true service is less about what we do and more about who we are.
One of my favorite lessons from the Bible is the one we learn from Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). I can feel the mixed emotions; excitement because Jesus is coming to their house and anxiety because wherever Jesus is a crowd follows. Making preparations for Jesus is one thing, but preparing for a crowd is quite another! I can picture Martha peeking around the corner, wanting to be part of the group but being held back by a sense of duty to see that everything gets done. I feel her resentment when she looks at her sister, angry that Mary left her to do everything by herself. I understand her frustration as she approaches Jesus, looking for help. I ache with disappointment and confusion when he tells her that Mary has made the better choice. Martha is not given the help she wanted.
So often I’ve wondered what this means. Someone has to do the work, and if we all sit by and rest at Jesus’ feet then nothing will ever get done. Ministry won’t happen. Lives won’t change. We’re supposed to do our part, aren’t we?
Yes! But that’s where the right definition of service comes in. In a spiritual sense, to serve simply means to worship and obey God. And service to other people is an outward expression of our worship and obedience to God. It is not saying yes to everything you’re asked to do. It is not always filling in for other people. It is not single-handedly ensuring that a particular aspect of ministry doesn’t fail. It is worshiping and obeying God.
In one of my favorite podcasts (By Faith) I recently heard it said that we are human beings, not human doings. The things we do are an outflowing of who we are, not the other way around. And at different times in our lives, we may be uniquely gifted to serve in specific ways. When your season of life changes, it’s OK if the way you serve changes too. It’s not about always taking on more and never letting things go. It’s about choosing the few ways in which God has uniquely gifted you to serve and giving your all to those select things.
Here are a few ways I feel called:
- In the home. As a wife and mom of three little girls, my first responsibility of service is to my family. This may mean getting less sleep than I’d like, spending extra time in the kitchen, and filling my spare time doing things I don’t particularly want to do. It means I pray with my kids, talk to them about God, and teach them to love other people. It’s not easy. I don’t get to ever turn “off” and sometimes I have to say no to things that I want to do. But if I am concerned about worshipping and obeying God, then it’s not optional.
- In the local church. I volunteer in one role at my church and that is it. When my family dynamics change I would like to give more of myself, but for now, I focus on doing that one role well. It gives me the opportunity to get out of myself and love on other people. The church body is special. It is God’s. I believe that if I want to worship and obey God, then this too is not optional.
- In my friendships. I used to say no to spending time with friends if it meant I couldn’t participate in something at church. I don’t do this anymore. If I don’t share my life with people when I’m outside the church walls, then I’m not really sharing my life with them at all. We are social creatures. We need relationships. Investing in and encouraging my friends is one of the best ways I can use my time, and this too honors God.
Thinking back on the story of Martha and Mary, I love that the story doesn’t end with Martha being overwhelmed and chastised for it. If you follow their story, you know that sometime after this first incident Jesus returned to their home when their brother Lazarus died (John 11). This time, Martha didn’t stay back to take care of things. As soon as she heard that Jesus was there, she ran to him. She was the first one to get to his side.
And this is what I believe God-honoring service looks like in the life of a godly woman. It is a beautiful balance between using your time and gifts to lift up other people and meeting physical needs, yet being able to run to Jesus and spend time in His presence, without a sense of duty or obligation to take care of physical things holding you back.
In what few ways do you feel uniquely called to serve?