The smell of the roasted chicken on the seat beside me filled the cab of my truck. My mouth was watering. I couldn’t wait to get home and slice into the juicy meat. My whole family loves a roasted chicken from Costco. A quick stop on my way home from work, Costco isn’t even out of the way, and one of our favorite dinners was quick and easy.
He was standing at the stoplight, sign in hand. Three simple words: Hungry. Please Help.
I sat there willing the light to turn green. Eyes staring straight forward. The thought of giving him the chicken did cross my mind, or any of the other groceries that were on the seat or the floor of my truck. It would have been simple to roll down the window and hand it to him. I could have even spent another ten minutes back in Costco to get another one.
The light turned green, and I drove away.
That, unfortunately, is a true story. I’m more than a little embarrassed to write it. But I do in the hope that you read the rest of this knowing how I struggle with serving others. It’s never as easy as I wish it was. But I’m learning. That day a stark lesson came home with me. I have the ability to help. Never have I been confronted with such an obvious situation where there was a need and I had the exact thing to meet that need. But I still chose not to.
I’ve thought about that day a lot. The Holy Spirit has used those few moments in two ways: encouragement and conviction. The work of the Spirit is vital when considering the topic of serving. It can be easy to simply feel guilty (and a certain amount of guilt may be appropriate), but mere guilt—or too much guilt—isn’t the best motivation for giving and serving. Relying on the work and movement of the Spirit will help us both to respond appropriately and to see our service in the proper way.
The Road of the Good Samaritan
In Jesus’s famous parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25–37), he explains our responsibilities in meeting the needs of those around us. But there is an interesting twist to what Jesus says.
The story starts with a lawyer asking Jesus who is his neighbor. The lawyer wants to define the limits of his responsibility to “love his neighbor as himself.” We get the sense that the lawyer certainly doesn’t want to do any more than is required of him. To his credit, he probably doesn’t want to do any less than what is required either, but he certainly does not seem to want to do any more. So Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer the question “who is my neighbor?”
We would expect that the one who is in need is the neighbor we should love. We should provide for those needs that we see as we have the ability and the opportunity. But Jesus says something intriguing. Rather than identifying the neighbor in need, he asks the lawyer to identify the one who acted like a neighbor (see Luke 10:36).
It seems that rather than defining the outermost edges of our responsibility, Jesus wanted to suggest that it is the kind of person we are that matters. Are we acting like neighbors to those we encounter? In the parable, the hero is unexpected while the expected heroes turn out indifferent if not villainous. The point is not that we find people to be objects of our generosity, but that we become the kind of people who are always generous.
By making a Samaritan (from a group of people strongly disliked by the Jews), Jesus was forcing the lawyer to see himself not as the person loving the neighbor but as the one in need. The challenge struck home, because no self-respecting Jew would be able to relate to a Samaritan—he couldn’t even say “Samaritan” in his response, just “the one who had mercy on him.” Jesus was telling a story of both how we meet needs and also of how we see people. There are no boundaries to who is a neighbor. Instead, we are to act like neighbors.
The Bible on the Serving the Needs of Others
Many places in Scripture directly prescribe our responsibilities in meeting the needs of others. Consider these few passages:
Deuteronomy 15:7–8 says, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” And continuing in verse 11, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”
And Jesus in Luke 14:12–14 says, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
James writes to everyone that pure religion is to visit orphans and widows in their distress (1:27) and uses meeting physical needs as an analogy of the value and reality of faith: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
This is to say nothing of the whole life and ministry of Jesus, where he met the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of nearly everyone he encountered—the woman at the well (John 4), the healed blind man (John 9), raising Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21–43), the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13–21), and the salvation of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) to name just a few instances when Jesus met various needs.
Meeting the needs of others is a noble end in itself. But when we talk of purpose, we not only mean the end result, we are also talking about motivation. What motivates us to care for the needs of others?
Jesus and the Why of Serving
In Philippians we read about what Jesus gave up simply to walk among us: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6–7).
The exploration about what Jesus gave up in order to become a human takes more time and space than we can use here. But what we can conclude without argument from these verses is that Jesus was willing to take what was rightfully his and give it up for the good and sake of others. Jesus had the willingness to give up everything for humanity in desperate need. And it is significant that this is not simply a detached theological statement from Paul about Jesus becoming a human. Paul is presenting Jesus as an example of what it means to consider the needs of others. Paul points to the incarnation as a model of how to give up something for the sake of another.
When we look at Jesus and his becoming human and living a life of service, we are given a clear picture of what serving others looks like. We know that the reason he did it was to “ransom many” and to “save the lost.” The passage from Philippians gives us perhaps a larger view of Christ’s motivation.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8–11)
Tucked into these rich verses we read how Jesus accomplished what he did—through his death on the cross. We are also told the outcome of that death—every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord. But in the final phrase of these verses, we get a glimpse of the ultimate reason. The reason for Jesus giving up what he did, the reason that the salvation of humanity was worth that sacrifice, and the so what of people declaring Jesus is Lord. The glory of God the Father.
Jesus’s motivation in serving humanity was to bring glory to God. This can also be our motivation for serving others and meeting the needs of those around us. This might sound like people are unimportant, or at least less important than the glory of God. But let’s explore this idea. It’s good to ask how this might bring glory to God.
From this passage in Philippians, we can see that it is not simply the act of service that is significant. The logic of the passage suggests that the entire process—service and result—brings glory to God.
Of course God is glorified by acts of service! When we meet the needs of others in an act of love, we are acting toward one another in a way that honors their dignity and value in the eyes of their Creator. But when we meet the needs of others so that they too are in a position to flourish, to live according to the designs and desires of God our Creator and Savior, this glorifies God too.
It is when we live the way God intended us to live and help others to do the same that God is most glorified. When we live into the God-intended pattern of community and justice, honoring the creative intentions of our Maker for ourselves and others, we are proclaiming that God’s plan is best, that his desires for us are for our good.
We live in a world broken by sin. That sinful world is at the root of the needs that we encounter daily. Sin is the root and the cause of our own lack and the lacking of others. Sin is what creates the opportunity for us to serve others. Jesus, in the ultimate act of service, gave up and endured much to create a solution to the root cause of needs. The effects of sin provide us with the opportunity to serve others, to bring them back into the wholeness that God intends for his creation to experience. Relationships that function how they were intended to function brings God great glory.