Tag Archives: Christian service

Christians Do Not “give back”

The public conversation in America commonly includes statements by people who announce that they want to “give back.” The first time I heard this phrase, I wasn’t sure what they meant. Now I understand that it is a way of saying that someone feels he (or she) owes the community or the country something. It is an admirable attitude to recognize blessings and obligations but I have found the phrase and the conversation troubling on several points.

Most of us feel blessed to live in our communities, and many of us feel blessed to live in the USA. Still, the phrase “give back” has come to sound a bit hollow, because the person who uses it really doesn’t say to whom or what he feels obligated and he doesn’t say why he feels obligated. Does it mean that he (or she) is giving something to community or government in return for something received? I think that is the point of it, but nobody is saying. The term also implies a transaction we need to examine. It points our attention to the person who says he will do the giving and invites us to come back and praise him if he actually does it. The phrase “give back” has no focal point except the speaker.

I feel much the same way about the phrase “give back” as I feel when the new liturgy directs the congregation to say, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” To whom shall we give our thanks? To what? For what reason? The recipient of the thanks and praise ought to be named. (Here is where I confess that no matter what the printed liturgy says, I say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.”) Likewise, when someone says that he is going to “give back” I really want to know what he will give and to whom and why.

If the motivation for giving back truly is a sense of obligation to community or to government, then that is one thing. If the reason for giving back is to give community and government thanks and praise, then I would disagree with the motivation. I guess my real quarrel is with the language. I certainly won’t quarrel with the behavior. Maybe I question the motives.

Christian teaching sends us in a different direction. At baptism, Christians receive the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Truth, who teaches us that our blessings come from God, not from people or the government, and that good government is itself a blessing from God, ordained to be our servant, not our master. Christians, therefore, serve others as an act of grateful stewardship of God’s blessings, not as an act of payback to community or to government. We are taught to serve in a way that points to God, not to ourselves.

The central difference between a secular choice to “give back” and a Christian choice to serve, however, is this: A Christian truly cannot serve human objectives alone no matter what sort of service he engages in. A Christian is called to share the good news and make disciples no matter what he is doing. He lives as a testimony to God’s active blessing, and his work is a testimony to that blessing. He can no more fail to praise God in word and deed, even if the deed is digging a ditch, than he can stop breathing. As Henry Nouwen says, “One cannot be a little bit for Christ, give him some attention, or make him one of many concerns.”[1]

Ultimately, this discussion is about where our loyalties lie. If our first loyalty is to God, we are called to serve him and to serve people as Christ’s hands and feet in our community. There is no “payback” or “give back” involved, because there is no accounting. The credit for the good services and the outcome of those services goes to God, not to the people who serve.

It sounds harsh, but the truth is that when someone acts on the principle of “give back” that person is denying God. Christians who borrow the term for their own service to God should stop using it. When anyone says clearly or by implication that blessings come from anywhere but God he is rejecting God. Many people use the term as a substitute for saying “good works” or even “volunteer service.” Ultimately, however, to say that any act “gives back” to some human what was received from God, is wrong.

Here is what Jesus said about our service and our good works.

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

 When Christians do anything good, when Christians serve their neighbors, or their country, or anybody at all, they serve with every intention of pointing people to God, not themselves. They do not “give back” to society or to the nation. They serve God Most High, Who in His infinite mercy sent Christ to die for the sins of the world. When Christians serve any person, they are serving Christ, and when they perform any service, it is the ultimate failure if their service inspires only reward for themselves.

Any Christian who lives his faith with any integrity is always a servant. He helps people and works for what is right in government and in the culture. He prays for people in need and gives them personal help as well. He wants prosperity, happiness, and peace for all people. He engages in grateful stewardship of God’s blessings and in faithful service to God and man. But he does not “give back.”






[1] Nouwen, Henry The Selfless Way of Christ, © 2007 by the estate of Henry Nouwen, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0308)

A Hymn for Meditation

Holy Spirit painting
Holy Spirit painting (Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble)

Holy Spirit, Ever Dwelling

by Timothy Rees

Holy Spirit, ever dwelling
in the holiest realms of light;
Holy Spirit, ever brooding
o’er a world of gloom and night;
Holy Spirit, ever raising those of earth
to thrones on high.
Living, life-imparting Spirit,
you we praise and magnify.

Holy Spirit, ever living
as the church’s very life;
Holy Spirit, ever striving
through us in a ceaseless strife;
Holy Spirit, ever forming
in the church the mind of Christ:
You we praise with endless worship
for your gifts and fruits unpriced.

Holy Spirit, ever working
through the church’s ministry;
Quickening, strengthening, and absolving,
setting captive sinners free.
Holy Spirit, ever binding
age to age and soul to soul
in communion never ending,
you we worship and extol.

Read and meditate on this hymn as your personal prayer today. What does God say to you through this hymn?

Holy Spirit Stained Glass
Holy Spirit Stained Glass (Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble)

The Need is not the Call

I receive a daily newsletter from Michael Hyatt. I’m not an executive of anything, but I think anybody can learn from leaders. Those of us who simply want to be more intentional when we write or speak are actually leading when we refuse to follow. So I mine his daily newsletter for guidance and inspiration.

Today’s topic could easily have led me to skip the newsletter. I’m glad I didn’t. The topic is coaching for pastors. I’m not a pastor, and I can’t afford coaching. I read the newsletter anyway. For the same reason I always read it. I never know what little gem will be embedded in there somewhere.

Today’s gem is this: the need is not the call. In an interview with Michael Hyatt, Dick Savidge gave an example of the value of coaching for a pastor, explaining how one pastor improved his work and his life after learning this important principle. I do believe that every Christian could benefit by learning this truth.

Among the many problems every person faces in our busy 21st century lives is the pressure to do good. We all are solicited by NGOs, by our churches and by our neighbors with causes to do good things. The television bombards us with requests for money for the hungry, the abused, and the enslaved. Our children need us. Our communities need us. There are so many needs.

The need is not the call.

You might think that a pastor would easily distinguish among the many needs that knock on his door and readily discern which ones God wanted him to give priority to. It isn’t easy even for pastors. And it isn’t easy for you and me. But we need to learn how to do it. None of us can effectively do what God created us to do unless we know how to discern what he is actually calling us to do.

Jesus gave us a terrific example of the right way to solve this problem in the gospel of Mark. After being tempted by Satan, and after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee and began preaching. He called the first four disciples as he was traveling around, and he went to Capernaum where Peter and Andrew lived. In the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus was invited to speak, and we know what his message was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14) He was interrupted by a needy man. The demon who possessed the man shouted and interrupted the teaching and distracted the listeners from the wonderful message. Jesus loved the tormented man. He cast the demon out, thereby setting the man free. He met a need that people understood, and they were in awe.

The Bible tells us that the rest of the day was filled up with needy people. If Mary, the sister of Martha, had been there, she would no doubt have run up to Jesus after he got to Peter’s house and said, “Master, tell us more. Tell us about the kingdom of God.” But there is no record that anybody asked him that question. They were all caught up in the spectacle of the exorcism in the synagogue, and the excitement only increased when news got out that he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, too. By the time Sabbath was over, the house was surrounded by needy people – the sick, the crippled, and the demon-possessed.

According to Mark, Jesus gently took care of all those needs. He helped people, because he loved people. The next morning, when another crowd began to gather, there were more needy people. Jesus, however, was nowhere to be found. When Peter and Andrew did find him, he was all alone somewhere praying. Praying. When all these people needed him. And when Peter and Andrew told Jesus that everyone was looking for him, Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38) It must have shocked these two who were very new disciples that Jesus was going to ignore all these needy people.

Jesus knew that the need was not the call. Jesus, however, had been out there in that lonely place, wherever it was, praying. It is not hard to guess what he was praying about. He had spent the previous evening taking care of needs. Starting at sunset, and going into the night, he had healed and helped many people. After what must have been a short night, Jesus had left the house before sunrise in order to pray. He had found an isolated spot and there he spent time in prayer. Because he turned to his father for guidance, he was able to finally discern that the need was not the call. By the time his disciples found him, he was confirmed through prayer in the central focus of his call. His call was to take his real message to many more people. Healing a few people and casting out a few demons was not going to transform the world.

There is a bigger question here, of course, than simply discerning the call. A lot of people will ask in an accusing tone, “Well then, what is God going to do for all those needy people? Are we just supposed to leave them in their need?” They might even feel so bold as to say that to Jesus. The disciples almost certainly asked that question, although their tone was probably more respectful. If I have an opportunity to help needy people and I pass it up because I am focused on the work God is calling me to do, I am subject to be asked the same questions. A pastor will absolutely be judged and criticized when he delegates any need to another staff member or to some other agency altogether. The world is watching us. The watchers will pounce on us when we say that somebody’s need is not our call.

The only way to make that decision is the way Jesus did it. He went to God in prayer. We don’t know how long before sunrise Jesus left the house for this purpose, but it was considerably after sunrise, after the crowd had started to gather, after the house had been searched and the neighbors had looked here and there, after people had had time to engage in all sorts of speculation that Peter and Andrew finally ranged far enough afield to find Jesus. There was a good deal of time for Jesus to pray through his conflicting demands and come to the conclusion that all these needs were not his call. His call was to take his message throughout Galilee, the message that would transform many people and eventually take him to the cross.

I don’t equate myself with Jesus. I don’t even equate myself with anyone called to be a pastor. But I have a calling. In order to fulfill my call, there are things I cannot do. I cannot do all the good things that need to be done. I cannot help every good cause. Because if I did, I would never be able to fulfill the purpose for which God called me. This work would go undone. Like Jesus in Capernaum, I need to pray daily for wisdom and discernment, because I am certainly not more wise than Jesus. I absolutely must pray in order to have any certainty that I am choosing to do the work God actually wants me to do. I struggle constantly with the fear that I am wasting my time, anyway, and that feeling certainly undercuts my willingness to assert that any particular need is not my call. That concern takes a lot of prayer. I don’t even know that I have it right yet.

Still I am comforted to be reminded that the need is not the call. It is important to remember that God did create me for a reason. I am not an accident. He has important and fulfilling work for me to do. It is quite worthwhile for me to spend the time it takes to discern between needs and calls. I thank God for his call to me, and I pray to be a faithful servant to complete the call I have received.