Celebration of Discipline: Service

book cover - Celebration Of Discipline

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2019. The schedule is online.

This week we come to the discipline of service — the habit of “quietly and unpretentiously… caring for the needs of others.” (page 130).

This is a solid chapter and full of insights.

“Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 130

As I sometimes remark, “God’s plan A for your life is humility. Plan B is humiliation. Choose wisely.” Pursuing humility through service is countercultural at an ambitious place like Stanford, and so we need to constantly remind ourselves of the model of our Lord. Jesus showed us that leaders are examples and not exceptions. A position of leadership does not exempt us from service — it gives us an opportunity to serve more people.

How can we tell if we are using a position as a platform for service? Robert Greenleaf, who was an executive at AT&T, wrote

“The best test [of your servant leadership], and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

The passage I found most helpful, though, is Foster’s insight on the difference between serving and being a servant:

“When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, page 132

Years ago someone told me that one of the truest tests of your servanthood is how you react when you are treated like a servant. It stuck with me, probably because I had recently felt the sting of being taken for granted. I had been treated like a servant and it bothered me, which meant that I did not yet see myself as a servant. In Philippians 2:7 we are taught that Jesus took “the very nature of a servant” (NIV). I came to see that if my goal was to have the very nature of a servant, then being treated like a servant was actually a marker of success.

What prevents this from becoming destructive is recognizing that although we are servants we are not serving the whims of people. Colossians 3:23–24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” He gets at the same idea in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. ”

In other words, our ultimate service is to the Lord. This limits the way we serve any specific person. I must not serve others in a way that undermines my ability to fulfill God’s purposes in my life.

  • I will help you move but not on my son’s birthday. I owe service to you but I also owe service to my son, and I owe him greater priority in service than I do to you. God has made me my son’s father and so my obligations in that regard will sometimes trump my obligations to serve you.
  • You don’t need to give your friend a ride to the airport when you are supposed to be taking an exam. Christ brought you to Stanford and you need to honor that part of His call upon your life.
  • And seeing yourself as servant doesn’t imply that you should only apply for minimum wage service jobs. If God is calling you to become a professor or an entrepreneur or a doctor or whatever, pursue that wholeheartedly and do what you need to do to prepare for that — and serve people at every step along the way.

Applying this principle requires wisdom, because if you are sufficiently clever you can justify forgoing almost any act of service or expression of humility. That’s really the clue, though. If you’re constantly seeking a way to avoid serving then you don’t have the heart of a servant, so stop rationalizing and start serving. If your heart, however, does not first say “must I?” but “can I?” when you see an opportunity to serve, then you are in little danger of using this principle to indulge your selfishness.

Next week we come to the corporate disciplines — the way that we live life together in the Kingdom.

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