3 Signs of Selfish Service

One of the great privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life is service. Different individuals and churches may call it volunteerism, ministry or some other title, but the idea is the same – we show our love for God and appreciation for his blessing by doing acts of service in his name. Unfortunately, there is always the possibility that what appears to be service for God is actually service for ourselves. This may not always be easy to detect, but there is an interesting verse of scripture that gives us 3 signs our service might be selfish.

The verse is John 3:26 and it describes a relatively minor incident with John the Baptist’s disciples. Speaking of Jesus, they come to John and say, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” This brief statement and John’s response clearly indicate that these men were struggling with some jealousy over Jesus’ ministry and were, at least for the moment, serving for selfish reasons. Before I articulate these signs, I do want to be clear that the presence of these signs in the lives and ministry of these unnamed disciples does not make them bad people. It just makes them human and I would suggest that each of us be aware that we are indeed susceptible to falling into selfish service in our own ministries from time to time. The following signs of selfish service should help us in determining our own motivations for serving.

  1. Ministry is competition. To John’s disciples, ministry was a competition. John was their master and their ministry was the right ministry and they didn’t like Jesus messing with it. Anyone that followed Jesus was someone not following John and was thus a problem. While this seems ridiculous when thinking of Jesus, it is a big problem in today’s church. If you are involved in serving in any capacity, I want to urge you not to let ministry become a competition. That means, don’t view everything different as wrong. Don’t compare results, leaders, accomplishments, etc. – this can lead to jealousy. Don’t view your personal ministry as “the good one.” Your church isn’t the singular light in your community. Your ministry isn’t the only good one within your church, either. This kind of competitive spirit is a sure sign your service is taking a turn toward selfishness.
  2. Ministry is about numbers (26). Remember what John’s disciples said about Jesus: “all are coming to Him.” They exaggerated; John was still baptizing people and over-all Jesus was rejected. However, the point is that they were watching the numbers. They were measuring Jesus’ success by the crowds and this made them feel less successful. The world and fleshly believers equate success with numbers. The size of the crowd doesn’t necessarily indicate the success or validity of a ministry. However, selfishness causes us to measure success with the wrong standard. Any attitude that equates spirituality with numbers is dangerous. A large ministry might offer the temptation to discount the significance of a smaller one. In a small church, we might accuse all big churches of compromise so we can feel better about ourselves. We might feel our ministry is better because more kids show up or begin to feel insecure if our church event is not as well attended as another church’s similar event. This emphasis on numbers is a common indicator of a selfish view of ministry and we must guard against it.
  3. Ministry is self-serving. The very idea of ministry is that we should be serving something other than ourselves, but selfishness can cause us to lose our way. Slowly, our service becomes about self-glory, fame, importance or any other of a number of wrong points of focus in our work. We are left ministering for our own purposes rather than for God’s. As servants and ministers, whether by profession or volunteer, we must resist ever serving out of a desire for what we might gain from our service. Though service for God naturally comes with a variety of immediate and eternal blessings, we should never serve because of what we might get out of it.

Service for God is an incredible privilege and can be a genuine act of worship when done with the proper motives. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to slip into a mindset of service that is partially or totally selfish. I would encourage everyone who serves in any capacity within the church to examine their heart as to what their motives for service actually are. Confess any selfish motives and pursue once again a posture of humble, sacrificial and selfless service.

Christ-follower or Blessing-follower?

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“2016 – the year without presents on Christmas.” This (accompanied by a few masterfully timed sighs) was the dramatic exclamation of my ten year old a few days before Christmas. His over-the-top theatrical outburst was due to the fact that we decided to move our traditional family Christmas activities (including presents) to Monday and intentionally focus on celebrating Jesus on Christmas Day. In the interest of full disclosure, this was primarily due to the busy nature of a Sunday Christmas rather than any super-spiritual aspirations on our part. However, this decision has taught me at least one thing: regardless of my best efforts and intentions, to small children Christmas is about one thing – getting presents!

A Fatal Flaw

In children, this is generally cute and eventually outgrown along with many other childish attitudes and behaviors. However, it does reflect one universal and fatal flaw in the human condition – we make everything about us. This includes the gospel and salvation. A common focus of gospel presentations and personal testimonies is all of the good stuff we get from God. We get joy. We get peace. We get a savior. While each of these is good and true, this is essentially a reversal of emphasis between two aspects of a single truth. The truth: God sent Jesus to earth and provided a way of salvation for all mankind. Our distorted perspective focuses on the benefit we gain from receiving this gift, while the true emphasis is on an awesome God giving a gift that we need.

 

A Self-centered Gospel

This may seem like the proverbial splitting of hairs, but as we build upon this faulty foundation our faith can take a very self-centered turn that was never intended. If the focus of the gospel is all about us getting joy and peace and salvation rather than about a great God giving us those things, than our life of faith becomes all about what we can get from God. The Christian experience becomes all about personal needs and desires. Following Jesus becomes nothing more than a means of getting what I can from God, from faith, and from the church.

This type of self-centered faith is why there are so many professing Christians who seem to live like nothing more than moral unsaved people. You know the ones I’m talking about – the “Christian” who might cuss more mildly, drink a little less, and go to church several times a month. But when it comes right down to it, these professing Christians are just living for themselves and have found a way to add God into their life on their terms. They want the blessings of being a Christian without any of the personal sacrifice or inconvenience.

The Heart of the Gospel: Sacrificial Love

I am not denying the tremendous blessings that come as a result of salvation. I am simply saying that the American church tends to overemphasize the getting to the neglect of the giving. You see, at the very center of the gospel story is God Himself giving up His place at the right hand of the Father. God gave up His high position in heaven to become human in order to redeem us. The very heart of the gospel is that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” The heart of the gospel is sacrificial love!

As we build upon this foundation, we will certainly receive blessings, but we will also live a life intentionally focused on imitating the kind of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. My faith becomes about responding in worship to a God to whom I am eternally grateful. My Christian experience becomes all about opportunities to sacrifice my wants and desires for the sake of serving Jesus through service to others.

A Practical Impact

This change of perspective will have tremendous practical impact on one’s daily life. You will be less offended when your rights are violated. You will be less hesitant to help someone in need. You will be more willing to go out of your way to serve someone. You will certainly be less concerned about getting your way all the time.

There will also be an impact on your attitude and behavior toward the local church. You will view church as an opportunity to use your gifts for the blessing of others. You will be more willing to sacrifice your preferences, like music, and decorations, and preaching styles. You will be less determined to make everyone cater to your comfort and desires. In short, you will desire to serve in the church rather than simply be served by the church.

Life as God Intended

I am not proposing that we do not receive blessings from God and I am certainly not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy them. They are a real and special and important part of what God has done for us. However, just like presents at Christmas, we cannot let these benefits and blessings become our primary focus. They are not the whole story. My prayer and desire for every true Christ-follower is that while enjoying the blessings of faith, you will live a life in passionate pursuit of the God of the blessings rather than the blessings themselves. That is living the way God intended; that is living in the manner that Christ lived. I challenge you to examine your own heart. Are you a Christ-follower or a blessing-follower? Prayerfully consider the answer and remember, it isn’t too late to make the change today!

The Path to Joy

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difficulty and uncertainty of life. There is great turmoil in our nation surrounding political and social issues. There are serious questions about the future for those of us who are people of faith. Looking around, I see a great deal of pain and suffering. I know many people that deal with chronic and constant pain. Many others are struggling with pain from relationships or some other emotional pain. The reality of life is that it can be difficult and painful and often can leave one discouraged.

In contrast, I also know that the Christian life is meant to be a life of joy. Peter writes that believers in Christ are “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Paul prayed for the church to be filled “with all joy…” (Romans 15:13). The psalms talk about singing and shouting with joy. Unfortunately, there are times that I wonder, “How exactly is that possible?”

Though life’s experience may cause me to question the reality of having joy despite the difficulties in life, my understanding of God’s Word leaves me confident that it is indeed possible. The Apostle Paul provides a multitude of examples of this through his own experiences and it is a common theme in much of his teaching. One of the common threads that form the foundation for a life of joy is that we must turn our attention away from ourselves.

Selfishness is a plague that we cannot seem to escape and far too often it worsens when things go wrong and life gets tough. We turn inward and become so focused on me; my problems; my trouble; my pain. That just makes us more miserable. You can be certain that if you focus on your problems, you will have very little joy.

Instead, we must turn our attention outward. We must look for opportunities to use our difficulties to advance the cause of Christ and bring God glory through our problems. We must look for ways to bless, encourage and serve others. I can assure you that through choosing to look outward you will find a renewed joy in your own spirit. You will find that one of the fastest way to bring a little joy into your own life is to focus on others instead of yourself.

If you are struggling to find joy in life, I challenge you today to stop living life for yourself and begin living it for God’s glory. The crazy thing you will discover is that when you live for yourself and your own happiness, you never actually find joy. It is a blessed paradox of following Christ that when you begin to live for His glory above everything else, you find immense joy.

Choose Wisely

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Frequently my children will respond to an instruction by saying, “But I don’t want to!” To which I respond in turn: “You don’t have to want to, you just have to do it.” Similarly they will protest the food on their plate by saying “I don’t like it” and I lovingly explain, “You don’t have to like it, you just have to eat it.” My goal is certainly not to be mean to them. In fact, I respond the way that I do because I love them so much. I love them enough to try to teach them that the wisest choices in life are not always made by considering what I like or what I want.

There are many ways that this proves true in life. Think about it. You don’t always want to eat what is healthiest for you. You don’t always like what is expected of you at work. You may not even want to get up in the morning. However, when you only do what you want and avoid what you dislike, you end up unhealthy and unemployed and unhappy. It is a foolish person indeed that uses their own desires and preferences as their only criteria for decision making.

This dangerous decision making model can also be found in many churches. Instead of thinking about what is best or healthiest, those in power simply consider what they like or want. Programs, initiatives, projects, service times, music styles, etc. are all determined simply on the basis of personal preference. Many times this seems to work out for awhile because those people making the decisions happen to want good things. However, when their desires conflict with what is best or right, their desires will still win out. This leads to a pattern of bad decisions that lead to long term spiritual bad health.

In both personal and ecclesiastical life, we must consider factors beyond our personal desires and preferences. The Bible instructs each of us to “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).” We are also told to “prefer one another (Romans 12:10).” When we face decisions, we can’t think only about ourselves. We must also consider the kingdom. In fact, Jesus said to seek the kingdom of God first. We must place His plans and priorities and desires above our own. This type of decision making leads to wise and healthy individuals and churches.

Don’t fall into the trap of selfish decision making. When it comes to determining how you will make decisions, be sure to choose wisely!

The Priority of Preference

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I was recently reminded of a quote by Thom Rainer in regard to dying churches. He has researched and written a great deal on the topic and has this to say: “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the Gospel, the church is dying.” In my experience, this is an extremely accurate assessment of the pervasive attitude of a church that has drifted off course.

To be clear, we aren’t talking about core theological positions. We’re talking about preferences as to how we do church. Generally these preferences are in the realm of music style, schedule and number of worship services, building design, activities and programs, and expectations of ministers and staff. Whatever the specific preference, members of dying churches generally prioritize their preferences over everything else, including God’s Word.

Unfortunately, this dangerous shift in thinking often goes unnoticed and undiagnosed until the end is inevitable or worse, the doors have already closed. In order to prevent this tragic scenario, we must be able to recognize this self-centered attitude before it takes over. Toward that end, I’ve made some observations that should help us recognize if our preferences have become our greatest passion. Your preferences may have taken over if…

  • You discourage people with different preferences than yours from attending your church.
  • You get angry at those who do not prioritize your preference.
  • You view change as bad and those promoting it as the enemy.
  • You would rather lose members than give in on your preference.
  • You put more energy into your preferences than into evangelism.
  • You believe your preference is scriptural and opposing views are sinful.
  • You will sin to ensure you get your preference.

As I said before, these are simply observations. In my experience they are accurate, but they may not be complete. The root of this problem is selfishness, so it can manifest itself in a variety of ways. We would each be wise to pray that the Lord would reveal our own blindness in regard to our attitude toward our preferences. Beyond that, we should also seek to practice the admonition of Paul to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3-5).”

 

 

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