Early in my Christian walk, Jesus’ words, “Go and sell what you have, give to the poor, and then come follow Me,” challenged me to simplify my life in order to serve God. I didn’t hear these words as a harsh, top-down command; rather, I saw how Jesus modeled this message and invited me to walk after Him. He gave up the riches of heaven to “take the nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). His actions encouraged me to give up my comforts and to become a servant. In my experience of “downward mobility,” I identified myself with Jesus’ move from master to slave or royalty to servant — or at least, so I thought. Focusing on Jesus’ actions, I missed something essential about the nature of God. And it has been among socially and economically excluded peoples that my eyes have been opened to see beyond God’s serving actions to God’s servant nature.
I had thought that the move of Jesus was one from lord to servant, a sort of trickle-down movement. Margaret Thatcher, a former British prime minister, is quoted as saying that if we want to serve the poor, we need to empower the rich. When the rich have wealth, they, like the Good Samaritan, take care of the poor. Since Thatcher said that, the trend of the rich getting richer and the poor poorer has debunked her trickle-down theory.1 Never having “enough,” the rich tend to serve their own interests — without “taking the form of a servant.”
Not only do we rarely see servanthood modeled by the upper classes in the stewardship of their power and possessions, but it is among the marginalized and oppressed that we find amazing lessons of servanthood. One of our friends, a mother of five, awakens early to go to the market. She spends the days cooking, cleaning and caring for her kids. On top of all this, she is always looking for odd jobs to bring some income to the family, often working late into the night. Although extremely poor, she is one of the hardest-working people I know, and she does it for the love of her family.
Another family close to us has recently lost their home. They are squatting in one large room in a falling-down building. They have 10 children and about 15 other family members living with them. Still, they often take in a boy who has no parents and no home. Although they have little, they have enough to share with this family-less child. Their service is not based on what they have but on who they are. It is not the amount of power or wealth they possess but their character that determines their service of others.
And this is also true of most of those supporting our ministry. Most are not wealthy, giving from their surplus. Rather, they are making daily sacrifices with us in order to share the gospel with those in need.
However, it is not simply a matter of becoming a servant, indifferent to our status and wealth. All human beings are servants in one form or another. We may serve mammon (Matt. 6:24). Apart from Christ, we all are “slaves to sin” and tend to serve our own interests (John 8:34; Rom. 6). So, it is not simply a question of becoming a servant. We are already serving something. The question is, “What do we serve?” Paul exhorts us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition” and to “not look to our own interests” (Phil. 2:3-4). We are called to have the same mentality as Jesus. It is a move from our self-centered way of serving to God’s way of serving.
In our creaturely service, we are compelled, to some extent, by sin and selfishness. In our daily walk, we constantly pray that our service would not come out of our own interests and compulsions. Although we are concerned about our needs for provision, we struggle to trust God, to surrender competitive inclinations, and to care for others. Although we may fear the instability of the world or being alienated by the world, we attempt to surrender our illusion of control and to hopefully be present to others. Instead of living under the deception that we can pay for our sins through our service, we ask God to relieve our guilt and shame, and to give us the freedom to love others. We may be tempted to take pride in our accomplishments and to exaggerate our own contributions, but we acknowledge that these are the grace and work of God in and through us.
We human beings give up wealth and securities and battle our compulsions so that they may be broken. But when Jesus gives up the riches of heaven to come to earth, He is under no compulsion except to love and serve the Father (2 Cor. 5:14). This is one of the main distinctions between our service and God’s. And this love is what we are called to imitate.
When we look at the breadth of Scripture, we see that God doesn’t “become” a servant with the sending of the Son into the world. From the beginning of creation, God reveals the very nature of God’s self as servant. God is the One on hands and knees planting a garden (Gen. 2:8). They are God’s hands in the dirt, as God forms man (2:7) and molds woman (2:2). God’s self-disclosure as servant continues in the great act of salvation from Egypt. God takes the slave’s job of carrying the torch by night and the canopy by day as God leads the Israelites through the desert (Ex. 13:21).
God is master as servant. God exercises creative and redemptive power through servanthood. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t come to earth to “become” a servant; He comes as a servant to reveal who God is. As servant, Jesus is not simply identifying with us; rather, He is showing us who God is. It is not so much God becoming like us as God inviting us to become like Him. Our celebration of service isn’t a move from master to servant but from isolation and self-security to a way of service that reflects the servant-nature of our Master.
1 See research by 2007 Nobel Laureate Eric Maskin at http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/kremer/files/GlobalizationInequality_Oct06.pdf.
David Chronic lives in Galati, Romania, where he lives with his wife Lenutsa and serves as Europe and Africa Regional Coordinator. He has taken up running along the riverfront, where there are fewer street dogs and people who are skiddish around joggers.