Cultivating a Servant Heart

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about spiritual disciplines is that they are all some kind of meditative, almost esoteric, type of practice. When this is the image of spiritual disciplines, most people begin to walk the other way. I have found that regular, consistent prayer is hard for many, if not most, people, and so the idea of adding more prayer, or more extensive prayer is a no-go from the get-go. When we pattern our spiritual disciplines after the life pattern of our Master Jesus Christ however, we see that there is a much wider range of activities we can do in all areas of our life to grow in Christ-likeness.

Before exploring one such discipline, I want to return again to an earlier warning about how we approach spiritual disciplines. Our fallen human nature so easily corrupts what is good for us. The abuse of these disciplines has often stemmed from an idea that we earn favour with God by doing them. This is unquestioningly false: we can earn nothing from God, but rather receive everything from Him by His grace. That also includes our own sanctification. This is where it can get tricky as we are dealing with a mystery here (it is not always clear how God works, nor is it necessarily our right to know – Deut 29:29, Is 55:8-9, Job 38). While we are responsible to obey God in all of our life and respond to Him, our transformation is still a work of God. I love the imagery that Terry Wardle uses to describe this in his book Outrageous Love, Transforming Power. Wardle explains that at the moment of salvation, believers have been given all the potentiality of Christ-likeness by the Holy Spirit, but that like a seed it needs to be nourished and nurtured to grow into its full potential.[1]  Our individually suited Christ-likeness is already completely within us, so that the activities we do to mature as Christians, such as the spiritual disciplines, don’t add to us a quality of Christ-likeness, but develop the Christ-likeness that is already present but under-developed.

I think many people are eager to nurture that seed of Christ-likeness and walk the road of sanctification, but find study and prayer to be difficult. Is there hope for their spiritual maturation too? For sure. But while there are other spiritual disciplines, this is no excuse to eschew study and prayer, ultimately the two practices that are fundamental to all the rest (not to mention our daily relationship with God). One such discipline that I want to talk about here I think fits people who are more action oriented. I’m talking about Service, with a capital ‘S’.

Service is one of the disciplines Dallas Willard includes in his category of “Disciplines of Engagement.”[2] Obviously in serving others we do engage with the world, with all our faculties: heart, mind, and body. At first glance I think it’s hard to see how serving can be a spiritual discipline. To me at least, it doesn’t seem overly spiritual. It was through my wife’s experience that my eyes were opened  to the power of this practice as a means to cultivate the servant heart of Christ within us. In response to the lockdowns over Covid-19 in Montreal, our church began to send a volunteer team to a local community kitchen. My wife was there serving every Friday morning.  Serving, albeit in a secular context, left her heart and soul in a joyful and peace-filled state, deeply aware of the close, loving presence of God. Not a dissimilar effect than from her regular devotional time of prayer and study. She was experiencing God through serving others, and through that experience conforming more to His character.

In our minds we often think that serving others is a draining thing. It takes our time and energy, and takes our focus away from caring for ourselves. Maybe the image you have is that a day of relaxation and self-pampering is needed after a few hours in service to others. For Christians this could not be farther from the truth. We know that God works all things together for our good, but remember that includes the little things as well. Our ultimate good in this life is to become as much like Jesus as possible with the time we are given. Living like He did, nurtures the budding Christ-likeness inside us to bloom, and if anything describes Jesus’ daily life vis-a-vis other people, it is service. Willard points us to Jesus unmistakable teaching on the subject in Matthew 20:25-28:

25 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. 26 It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

We know in our hearts and heads that the way of Christ calls for us to lay down our lives and life for others, the way Jesus did. The hard part is simply living that out with integrity every day. Our sinful nature keeps us focused on ourselves – our needs, wants, comforts, sense of importance. But God calls us to something nobler: this radical way of Jesus that rejects the selfish heart.

This is where the discipline of service comes in. As Wardle puts it, nurture and nourishment allow the qualities of Christ-likeness to grow. A similar image is how exercise and practice allow us to build the physical and mental capabilities of our bodies to their fullest. The same is true of the human spirit. As we make a habit and discipline of serving others, we experience the self-denial that is so central to the way of Jesus. Soon these spiritual muscles grow and displace the sinful predilections that keep us self-focused and we resemble more our Lord and Saviour.

Challenge yourself along this path and see what comes. Not every moment of serving others can or should be seen as a discipline in this regard, but we can find a need within our neighbourhood or community and dedicate our time and energy to serve and through it focus our hearts on the One who has shown us the way.                                                    

[1] Terry Wardle, Outrageous Love, Transforming Power, 20.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of The Disciplines, 182-4.

Image credit: Christ washing the apostles’ feet, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

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