“Servant” — Is it a throwaway word?

servant.jpgOnce a week he went to their mobile home.  Jimmy first met this family at church.  They were young, maybe in their 40s.  "Jack" was in a wheelchair.  Jimmy went to their home one week.   He mowed the yard while he was there.  Then one week while he was visiting with Jack, "Sue" arrived home from the grocery store.  Jimmy took the groceries in and even helped put them in their place.  This was the beginning of many, many visits to come.  Each week, Jimmy mowed the yard and then visited with Jack.  Meanwhile, Sue went to the grocery store and bought groceries.  Jimmy was always there to help her unload just before he returned home.  I think Jesus would have seen Jimmy as a servant.  

Jesus used the word.  We really use the word.  I am just not sure we mean what Jesus meant when we use the word "servant."  

Sometimes, the most arrogant sounding businessperson or minister will use this term to refer to himself.  Does the word communicate?  Yes.  I’m just not sure the word communicates what Jesus meant when he used the word.  After all, this word doesn’t just refer to a particular work that one might do, it also communicates a certain spirit or attitude.

Now here are a few principles: 

When being a servant looks
prestigious, you are probably missing the point

Some people want position and power and have the gall to talk about it openly.  Most of us use more subtle ways of getting the
advantage.  Jesus’ closest followers
did not understand Jesus’ talk of death (Mark 9:32). 
They did understand the self-promotion that was at the heart of
their conversation.

We sometimes forget that it is not position
that determines greatness but service. 

We know
what it’s like to want prominence, position and power.  We know what it is to want the
advantage.  Frederick Nietzsche spoke of
“the will to power” as the basic human drive. 
In a marriage, power can be used to bully, control and intimidate.  Anyone who is married knows where his/her
mate is most vulnerable (weight, height, appearance, etc.).  There are men and women who have used their
power to destroy each other’s sense of self-worth.  Tony Campolo, Christian author, says the one
who loves the most in a relationship has the least power.  Marriage often becomes a battleground for power.

friends spend a good deal of energy trying to gain the advantage.  This happens when we practice a kind of
one-upmanship in our conversations.  Think about some of the things we say to one another:


  • “I
    can’t believe you’ve never heard of _______. 
    Everybody knows about that.” 
  • “I
    can’t believe you bought that car.  Don’t
    you know there are some real problems with those cars?” 
  • “That’s nothing, you should have seen
    what happened to me.” 


Being a servant is not the way
to greatness.  It is greatness

Jesus says
that being first or being great does not mean that you have an advantage over
someone.  Greatness is not a goal so that you can maneuver
yourself into the right position.  Jesus says
that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  This person lives for others.  

is not holding a position.  It is serving
people.  To simply hold a position says
nothing about greatness.

  • Great may describe the teacher who is
    always on time and well prepared to teach three- and four-year-olds and yet may
    get very little, if any, recognition.
  • Great may be the person who drives an
    elderly person to the doctor’s office. 
  • Great may describe the ministry of that
    person who makes the extra effort to get involved in others’ lives. 
  • Greatness is
    defined by whether or not we serve people in practical, specific ways.

Just been thinking about this one this week.  In your experience, have the Christian leaders in your world modeled what it means to have a servant heart?  Or, have they modeled something else?  How does a leader’s ego either enhance or damage the credibility of the leader?  

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29 thoughts on ““Servant” — Is it a throwaway word?

  1. I really like your observations of servanthood. I think if I could add one thing it would be that real servanthood does not require recognition to feel like his (or her) service is validated. It doesn’t need the "big jobs" to be happy in serving. The little mundane things that nobody notices are what makes a real servant. Just a thought… Brittany 

  2. “Serving is not the way to greatness – it IS greatness.”
    I love that thought. I read one of Erwin McManus’ books a while back, and that idea was one of the main ones I came away with – he made the same comment. It’s when we learn that serving is greatness, not a means to greatness, that it really begins to click.

  3. This post made me think of the following old cliche. "If you have to tell everyone what a great servant you are, then you probably aren’t." Serving is usually better done by "doing" than "talking."

  4. Provocative as always, Jim.   Think about the contrast between Herod and Jesus.  Herod was a slave to his own lusts and his own ego.  He "had" to behead John even though he didn’t want to.  He’s so greasy looking.  Jesus, however, was oblivious to his own divinity and never once gave in to the temptation to "one up" his friends, or belittle others even when they were way off target.  His rebukes weren’t ego-centered but other-centered, filled with words that had potential to make the other better.  Herod looks like a miserable slave while sitting on the throne.  Jesus looks like the perfect image of freedom while hanging on the cross.  I wish I were more like Jesus and less like Herod!

  5. An aspect of service that is implied here, but not overtly spelled out is that these acts are also worship. People are surprised when I tell them that raking the leaves (of the church, or of a person in need), or working on the church sound system, or sorting clothes for the poor, are acts of worship. You can have a "good heart" and do "good things" for other people, and even be a good servant by the standards set by Jesus, at least in all appearances. If, however, it is not done for the right reasons, then you are missing the point.

  6. Interesting thoughts about serving. 
    I’ve often thought the same about "sharing".  It seems that Christians "share" when really they may just have something to say.  

  7. Dave,Good point.  The motive really does matter and probably is what sets us apart from others who are doing good but for other reasons.

  8. Great post and as usual- hits home. Why is it that we feel we need recognition when we perform acts of service? (I know I am guilty of this at times!) What is the point of true service when we must be constantly validated? I know a lot of people who like to talk about all the service they’ve committed recently. I wonder if it would mean more to the Lord- and to the person they served- if they just kept their mouth shut.

  9. My friend and I have a ministry of prayer counseling which I have said is "underneath the radar."  A wise mentor asked "why would you want to be above the radar?"  Hmm, guess the servant’s role is much safer in many ways when hidden from view.  It’s all about motive, isn’t it?

  10. Good thoughts. I think this converges with what I read recently, on a blog, about efficiency possibly being an enemy of true ministry. To be the servant Jesus has called us to be involves time and involvement in things, that in themselves, seem as ordinary as ordinary can be. But the ones I’ve known who best epitomize servanthood, I think, are the ones who are there, and serve in that kind of way. Though, of course, this kind of service must begin at home.
    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Jim.

  11. You mention servanthood as a ministry.  One of your commenters calls it worship.  Maybe if we were to view it one of those two ways, we might be more apt to be servants.  Unfortunately, we are sometimes influenced by society’s view of servanthood, making it less appealing.  Thanks for the insight.

  12. hi jim

    we had a wonderful living example of this in our church last november. we had a guest speaker from another church in our city, it was the first time i had heard him and that he had been at our church to speak. anyway we always take up an offering for our guest speakers, becasue we appreciate that they come to us and also some of them this is their means of income (itinerating). anway before he started to preach he gave us our offering back, explaining that as a pastor he is already paid to speak on a sunday and so he wanted to give it back to us for our church. he then went to speak on authentic christianity and leadership and how there are some leaders in our nation that are definately on the otehr sscale – ambition, prestige, the flash car/boat/house/clothes, the right connections etc vs living for the gospel and been a servant of God. was enlightened by his actions.

    thanks for this encouraging post.

  13. Claire,A wonderful comment.  Thanks for sharing what you witnessed.  I suspect this was encouraging to the group and probably caught everyone’s attention as well.

  14. Becky,Thanks!  I suspect you are right.  I also suspect we are greatly impacted by this culture’s view of servanthood which has removed it’s radical edge.

  15. Carol,I suspect you are right regarding ministries that are "under the radar."  I know it is challenging to maintain a servant’s heart.  It is probably even more challenging the greater the public eye.

  16. “We strive to fill ourselves and remain empty, Jesus emptied himself and lived fully.” (Pg 33)

    “The quest for honour is not where we pursue humility for greatness, but where we pursue the greatness of humility.” (Pg 62)

    This one is a little off-track maybe, but I thought it fitted:

    “We have wasted too much effort trying to become perfect in our actions and invested too little energy in becoming healthy in our spirits.” (Pg 138)

    “Servanthood is not God’s way to get us to the place where we will only be served; it is both the way and the life of the kingdom of God.” (Pg 251)

    Hope those quotes give a further glimpse of God and his purposes for servanthood!