Servanthood And Grace

Written in 2006



By Ajith Fernando


One of the most horrible things one could see is the sight of Christians who sit contented with life after receiving God’s grace but do nothing to alleviate the suffering in the world. As we follow our Servant Lord, we too must become servants of the people we live among. However, our work towards the alleviation of suffering must comes as an overflow of grace. In an autobiographical passage describing his ministry Paul said, “…the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). The word translated “controls” has the idea of applying pressure (which is how this word is used in Luke 8:42b). God’s love comes in and then pushes us out into sacrificial service in this needy world.


Because everything Christian springs from grace, always grace has the priority in our approach to life. This is very important in Christian service because service can be done through self-effort so that grace is overshadowed. Though it looks like Christians are doing something for the world, actually it is Christ who is doing it through us. This is why there is so much about grace in the Epistles. We should take this proportionate emphasis on grace very seriously because the Epistles were the basic teaching documents sent to the young church. If in the process of inspiring the Bible into being the Holy Spirit decided that the primary focus should be on grace, then grace should be the primary focus in Christian teaching also.


Indeed some people focus on grace in an imbalanced way so that grace does not express itself in gracious service in this needy world. This is an insult to grace.


Let’s see how grace prompts service. When we focus on grace we are filled with Christ’s love and with the joy that comes with it. That joy will give us the strength (Neh. 8:10) to go out and serve humanity. In this scenario there won’t be a need to have a major stress on service in our teaching. Graced people will catch the message of service when it is given to them, and they would go out to serve. I think this is why the Epistles have more space explaining grace that pushing people into service. This is why esteemed servants of humanity like St. Francis of Assissi, William Wilberforce and Mother Theresa spoke so much about grace and placed so much emphasis on lingering in the presence of God through which strength is found to live a life of service.


There are many reason why we need to have all Christian servanthood to spring from grace.


1. Grace Reminds us of the Importance of Evangelism. It is possible for Christians to spend all their energy serving human needs, that they can neglect the greatest need of a human being: the need to end their enmity with God—which destines them to hell—and be reconciled to God. This would be like only feeding the prodigal son while he is still in the far country. Indeed we may need to feed him there, but our great desire would be to get him to go home to his father.


I know that Francis of Assissi and William Wilberforce were both very strong on verbal witness in addition to witness through deeds. We often quote words attributed to Francis that go something like this: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” Often that is quoted to downplay the value of words in Christian witness. Indeed it is clear from his ministry that he believed that preaching by deeds is a very important means of witness. But I found out that Francis did use words a lot in his witness, and that he aggressively sought to win the lost to Christ. During one of the infamous Crusades, he even crossed over to the (Muslim) Saracens side and attempted to convert the Sultan.


Similarly William Wilberforce who, as a British politician did much to eradicate social evil was also known for his emphasis on personal verbal witness. His biographer says, “Very early in his own pilgrimage Wilberforce set out to bring his friends to Christ. He would agonize about them in his diary and in his prayers, he would thing out phrases or subjects (“launchers”) he would call them which might turn the talk to religion.”[1]


Don’t get me wrong. I believe we must be involved in meeting physical human need—in social action. We must be involved in trying to bring kingdom values to the structures of society—in social justice. Christians need to be thinking about topics like hunger, poverty, inequality, materialism, the hyper-sexualising of society, corruption, workers rights, and the environment. Involvement in such causes is clearly part of God’s call to us to be his agents and his call to us to be stewards looking after this world (Gen. 1:28). We know that one day God will redeem this world and consummate his kingdom work of establishing his rule in the universe. So we do not give up on this world. We are kingdom people who realise that the coming consummation of the kingdom will result in the redemption and not destruction of much of what we know to constitute this world.


But when we consider the supreme value of the human individual’s soul, we see the urgency of ensuring that individuals become inheritors of the kingdom. According to Jesus, one needs to be born again in order to inherit the kingdom (John 3:3-8). So in a discourse of personal discipleship Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matt. 16:26). This verse underscores the supreme value of the human soul or life. This is why evangelism is such an urgent task today.


By taking the gospel to those who are outside the Christian community we open the door to their salvation from sin and hell and their adoption into God’s family. But this is a very challenging task involving much spiritual conflict and attracting much persecution. Therefore we can be tempted to downplay this and share the gospel only with inquirers who come to us without going to those outside of contact with Christians. I fear that many Evangelicals are guilty of this.


I think it is because we could take it easy and not proactively go after the lost that Jesus kept repeating his commission to evangelisation before leaving this world. It would be so easy to neglect this task that he needed to drill it into the minds of the disciples. The repetition just before his departure suggests urgency and priority. This is why I still prefer to use the words “the Great Commission” to describe the call to evangelise and disciple the people of the world, even though many are uneasy with this expression these days.


My point in this section is that we can get so engrossed in meeting physical human need that we can neglect the gospel of grace which brings eternal salvation to people. An emphasis on grace can help us overcome this error.


2. Grace Helps us Avoid Bitterness. Christian servanthood is difficult work. It may cause in a highly qualified and brilliant intellectual to devote his or her life to serve the poor as a teacher in a village school. It may cause a young man, who is skilled in business and showing great potential for success in this field, to give up all those prospects of prosperity in order to be a primary school teacher because many young children today are lacking in good models of fatherhood. It may cause a successful businesswoman to resign her job in order to care for her sick mother or a successful businessman to retire early to care for his sick wife.


Servanthood involves the frustration of having to change our plans in order to meet the needs of those who serve. One who saved money over several months to buy a new TV set may end up giving that to pay the entrance fee needed for a poor friend’s daughter to get into a good school. It also involves us having to change our schedules. Often our desperate plans for rest or sleep are buckled because of having to help a needy person right at the time we were planning to sleep or rest.


Sometimes the hardest aspects of servanthood have to do with the reactions of people. The parents of many of the great missionaries in history were not happy about their children going to the mission field, and when so many of them died young, they felt that their reservations were proved to be correct. Often because of the warped sense of values in our world, people who do service-oriented things which do not send them up in the social ladder are viewed as failures in life. Sometimes that is the hardest thing—to have people despising you for the sacrifices you make when you thought they should be admiring you.


Then there is the sad fact that those we help sacrificially may turn against us and end up blaming us for their problems. Leaders too can disappoint us by not appreciating what we do and by criticising our actions.


All this can make us very bitter or depressed or disillusioned with the life of servanthood. I have had people say to me angrily (as they reject a lifestyle of servanthood) that they have served others for too long and that now it is time for them to look after themselves. The sad fact is that many people known for their humble servanthood are actually very bitter people. When the bitterness comes out under some provocation we are shocked to see how unhappy these servants really are.


The ultimate good done by bitter servants is highly limited. They lack the anointing of the Spirit of love, and so though they may be able show some impressive statistics of what they achieved, in the end they have achieved very little from God’s eternal perspective.


Besides, we may end up hurting people by our angry outbursts that often take place when we are bitter. We hurt our colleagues, we hurt those we seek to serve and a lot of the good we have done is negated by the negative impact of our temper tantrums.


Sometimes we spend so much time and effort trying to show that we are right and those who opposed us are wrong. The battle may be disguised as a fight for justice. But actually it is a battle to boost our ego that has been offended. I feel such battles are a waste of time. We spent so much time and energy on a battle that will produce minimal net effect. It would be so much wiser to let God vindicate us and concentrate on serving God in this needy world.


Grace is the best antidote to bitterness and disillusionment. When we are overwhelmed by the fact that God loves us in spite of our sins, the force of the wrong actions of others is negated. While we are sad by what they have done, we reason that we too have done so much which is wrong but that still God in his grace is using us. So we become patient with the sins of others. Besides the doctrine of grace braces us with the fact that though sin may abound grace will abound even more (Rom. 5:20). We know therefore that the evil affects of sin will be overcome.


With such a perspective we have no reason to be bitter. To remain bitter is to affirm that people’s sin against us is greater than the grace of God. That is heresy. Besides people don’t deserve such a high status—the status of being able to claim that they have caused decisive harm to God’s children. No sin is greater than God’s grace. Therefore the net effect of God’s grace always leaves us better off even after people have sinned against us (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). “all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). We don’t just neutralise the enemy. Grace ensures that we are better off because the enemy attacked us. He’s done us a favour. How can we be bitter with such a perspective?


Then there is the reality that most important thing in our lives is not touched by the nasty behaviour of people. The most important thing in our lives is not the service we render to humanity, it is the fact that God loves us. This is what causes us to be filled with joy. Because God’s love is greater than the wickedness of people, however bad people have been, we still have that thing which fills our hearts with joy. This joy, of course, becomes a key to our effectiveness as servants.


3. Grace Takes Away our Insecurity. When we do not emphasise grace we do not feed our sense of identity in Christ. This makes us insecure and results in us doing fleshly things to restore our sense of self importance. We become judgmental and start criticising others who do not work like us. We major on exposing the ills, the ugliness and the hypocrisy in society. In the process we neglect to emphasise beautiful grace of God which helps us overcome those ills.


The Bible says “…in humility count others [in the body of Christ] more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). But we do just the opposite. In our insecurity we begin to focus on how good we are and on how we not hypocrites like others. This gives rise to pride, and the Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). We become vulnerable to Satan’s attacks, and we fall into sin.


This could be one reason for a sad phenomenon that is all too common in the church: many who are serious about social holiness are guilty of glaring lapses in personal holiness. As they find satisfaction in the work they do, their insecurity causes them to get proud. Then they become careless about the great battle that is needed to guard their personal lives. Once they fall into sin they try to silence the voice of conscience by finding fault with others who they think are doing much worse things than them. So they become obsessed with the hypocrisy and social sin in church and society. Though they may diagnose the problem accurately, they do not present the solution to it which is the grace of God.


Biblical Christians are equally committed to personal and social morality and battle for both of them. But they also know that if they fail in personal morality that disqualifies them from battling for social morality. This knowledge pushes them to get the personal area of their lives cleared up. They know that only then can they can have the spiritual freedom that is needed to battle in the social realm. And, thank God, his grace is always there to forgive us when we sin and to help us along the path to full-restoration.


Servants must be secure people if their service is going to be wholesome and constructive. Only grace can give us such security.


4. Grace Gives us the Strength for Servanthood. Servanthood is very draining. In my youth I read a quote from the British Baptist preacher Francis W. Dixon who said, “The hardest work to do is the work of God on your own strength.” If we try to serve people on our own strength, we will become prime candidates for burn-out. We will begin to find our fulfilment from work. We will work long and hard without taking a daily break for being with God and a weekly Sabbath to relax and let God work for us. If our focus was on grace, we would realise that because God is the one who does the work the most important thing is for us to be in tune with God.


But as we linger in the presence of God, reading his Bible, meditating and praying, we find that our batteries charged and our strength renewed. Isaiah 40:31 says, “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. I tell our Youth for Christ staff that our calling is to go into the world to serve. When we do that we will get bashed. But we come back to God and renew our strength. Then we go into the world again only to get bashed again. But again we come back and renew our strength. Using this pattern we can go on and on without getting burned out.


If people who work very hard do not depend on grace they end up getting very insecure. Devoid of the thrilling identity of being a child of God they find their identity in their work. Sometimes they succumb to an extra-marital affair to boost their flagging egos. Spending so much time in office, they neglect their spouses and become candidates for an affair with someone at work. In their insecurity they become driven people. They work without stopping to look into themselves to see how we are doing. They continue to work and work until the body and the mind revolt and refuse to subjected to this slavery. They lose our energy and drive: they end up burned out.


Many people who have served sacrificially for a long time end up burned out when they come to their middle age. Burnout has become an epidemic among people who are involved in people-helping activities. It could have been avoided if they had been nourished by the rejuvenating grace of God.


My friend, Susan Pearlman of Jews for Jesus used to say, “Burn out takes place when the wick and not the oil is burning.” God’s grace is an inexhaustible resource. Those who are constantly energised by grace can go on serving for decades without losing their fire. Until the day they die they will be energised and thrilled by the marvels of grace. They will remain excited about the ministry—not because of the success they meet but because of the glory of the grace of God which calls them and equips them to serve.


Let me close this article by issuing a call to Christians to commit themselves afresh to a life of service. But, when doing so, make sure that this service springs primarily from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and not from a sense of duty that results in purely human efforts at doing good.

[1] John Pollock, Wilberforce (Herts and Belleville, MI: Lion Publishing, 1977), pp. 66-67.