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What it Truly Means to Have a Servant’s Heart

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Serving is a common concept thrown around in the Christian life as we help out in the kid’s ministry at our local church or as we serve food at the homeless shelter downtown every Friday. But do we know what it means to have a servant’s heart, truly putting the needs of others above our own needs? Oftentimes, serving becomes a compulsory action, something that we have to do just to check off that box on our religious checklist for the week, but it goes so much deeper than that. 

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”

1 John 3:16-17(ESV)

Using this profound piece of scripture as our framework, let’s dive into what it means to have a true servant’s heart modeled after Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice, carried out through his Holy Spirit, and manifested in our daily lives as Christians. 

volunteers serving at a soup kitchen with the text what it truly means to have a servant's heart

Why do we serve? 

In order to get rid of the obligation, or compulsory connotation that comes with the concept of serving, we must first understand why it is that we serve. Doing something without understanding the purpose of it causes us to go into auto-pilot mode while doing it, which makes it meaningless to us. It’s okay to go on autopilot while doing the dishes, picking up the groceries for the week, or any other mundane tasks that unfortunately come with being a responsible member of modern-day society, but it is not okay to turn our commands set before us by God the Father into one of those mundane tasks. 

Simply put, we serve because Jesus served. “He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Christ Jesus, the Son of God, came down in the form of a servant and continues to serve at the right hand of God. As his followers, we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ perfect example in both mind and action and be “imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1).

However, as human beings, we do have a sinful nature, so we can never fully become exactly like Jesus in every way all the time, but through the lifelong process of sanctification that begins at salvation, we strive to be closer to the holy perfection showcased in the example of Christ each and every day. 

One of the ways we put on the image of Christ is through serving others. This seems so easy; we can all drive downtown and serve food at the local soup kitchen, hold the door open for the elderly couple behind us, donate to charities, you name it. But Jesus didn’t serve just for the heck of it, just because it was fun, or just because he was supposed to. Jesus served to the point of death in order to teach, to witness, and ultimately to save humanity. 

“Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:28 (ESV)

In the same way, we do not serve simply because we want to be like Jesus (which we most definitely should), or just because Jesus tells us to serve, but we serve with our whole heart, because we are becoming like Jesus, and therefore we desire to be true servants. As we are sanctified, we should find that the needs of others are naturally prioritized above our own needs. 

Why we serve is not quite as shallow as this, though. Serving because Jesus did is an umbrella with many other, more specific reasons beneath it. Let’s look at what those different reasons are according to scripture. 

“Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

2 Corinthians 5:20 (ESV)

According to Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth, God makes “his appeal through us,” meaning it is through his believer’s actions and interactions that he makes himself known. Now, that does not mean we sit back and relax and allow God just to take over our bodies, but rather, it is a call to spread the Gospel and grow God’s kingdom. Walking up to people on the street, or in the store, or wherever you find yourself on a day to day and just preaching the gospel to them is not going to be very effective.

Instead, we search for good opportunities to spread the gospel, typically from a genuine relationship built with an unbeliever. And what is a great way to do this? Serving! It is through serving that we not only get in front of the unbelieving world but actively show the love of Jesus. Words mean nothing without action. Therefore, we serve to spread the Gospel.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by strength that God supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

1 Peter 4:8-11

Considering that Peter wrote the books of First and Second Peter to the followers of Jesus living in the Roman empire, we can assume that he is talking specifically about serving the church, whose sole purpose is to glorify God. It is through loving one another, being hospitable to each other, and just generally serving one another that the Church body is made stronger and stronger. That being said, we serve to edify the church. 

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?

And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:35-40 (ESV)

This well-known direct quote from Jesus does not call for any expanding upon. It is crystal clear, that we serve to serve God. 

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:16 (ESV)

This scripture ties back into serving to spread the gospel, as previously discussed. We shine our light to others, that is the light of Christ, so that they will see him in us. But why do we do that? To “give glory” to our “Father who is in heaven.” By serving because Jesus served, because it spreads the gospel, and because it serves God himself, we bring glory to God. We are each a servant of God, and we serve to glorify God.

How do we serve? 

Sometimes, the idea of serving others can seem nice and easy, like just doing something for another person or group of people, and other times, we can get sort of stuck, where we’ve run out of ideas or we aren’t presented with any opportunities. 

Although this state can actually be a kind of relief as we use it as an excuse to take a little break and reprioritize ourselves, the truth is, that God has equipped us in a way that truly gives us no excuse for not serving. When indwelt with the Holy Spirit, we are given spiritual gifts, such as hospitality, teaching, encouragement, administration, etc.

But can’t these just be talents that anyone has, with or without the Holy Spirit? Yes, but what differentiates a talent or ability from a spiritual gift, is that a spiritual gift is a supernatural inclination to being hospitable, teaching, encouraging your brothers and sisters, or whatever gifts one may have, and that supernatural inclination is directly from God himself, and therefore capable of bearing more fruit than any human talent. 

Going back to the passage in 1 Peter 4, we see that we are explicitly called to serve one another using these spiritual gifts. 

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace”

1 Peter 4:10

While our spiritual gifts are a great and easily accessible way to serve one another, they can oftentimes become an excuse not to. It is very easy to fall into the trap of only exercising our top spiritual gift and denying anything outside of that.

For example, if someone is gifted in teaching, but their church body desperately needs someone to be a greeter on Sunday mornings, that person can say, “Oh, I’m not gifted in hospitality. I don’t think you want me doing that” just because it doesn’t sound like a good time, even though they know they could hold open a door and say hi to people with no problem.

So yes, we should use our spiritual gifts to serve in the areas they correspond with, but that doesn’t mean we are exempt from the hard work it takes to be a faithful servant in other areas. Following that logic would be the same as saying not everyone is supposed to bear all the spiritual fruits listed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5, and I’m sure we can agree that that is just ridiculous.

Whether we are supernaturally inclined to something or not, if we are presented with the opportunity to serve, we shall serve, and we should do it “without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).

Another trap that a great number of Christians frequently fall into is the idea that they never have any good opportunities. And that is a valid argument to a point; said point ending when you haven’t prayed for opportunities. 

“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”Matthew 21:22 (ESV)

If you aren’t presented with any opportunities to serve others, just ask for them! Jesus could not have been more clear: If you ask God for opportunities, having faith that he will give them to you, you will get them! And don’t just pray for opportunities. Pray that He would open your eyes to them and that the love of God would shine through your words and actions.

Even with prayer, putting the needs of others above our own needs is still hard work. Everything is still hard because we live in a constant battle between our flesh and the Holy Spirit. But looking back to our framework scripture, 1 John 3:16-18, we see that we can become a faithful servant, modeled after the life of Jesus, by leaning into God’s love that abides in us through his spirit. 

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” 1 John 3:17 (ESV)

By asking this question, John implies that if someone is a Christian, a true follower of Jesus, meaning that the love of God lives inside of him, then he will reach out to his brothers in need. Therefore, we can serve by allowing God’s love, and the fruits of his spirit that already dwell within us, to flow out of us. But how do you do that? Again, prayer. Ask God to help you set your selfish flesh aside and set your heart on his  Holy Spirit so that the attributes of His character would naturally flow through you, and become the attributes of your character. 

Serving with a servant’s heart

So what if I told you everything you’ve read so far is actually meaningless? Because it is. Yes, helping people is good. Yes, sacrificing your time to edify the church body is the right thing to do. But if you are doing it selfishly or out of mere obligation, then it truly does not mean anything in the eyes of eternity. 

Carer reading to senior for the post what it truly means to have a servan't heart

And that is the essence of the heart of a servant. It’s not about the action, and it’s about the intention, the heart, behind the action. 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.”

Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)

After learning why we serve – because Jesus did, to spread the gospel, to edify the church, and to glorify God – and how to serve – by exercising your spiritual gifts, leaning into the Holy Spirit within us, and being prayerful in the process – it is too easy just to gather our things and say “Okay! I’m all set! I’m gonna be like Jesus by stepping up to help with the youth group!” But it goes so far beyond just doing things. 

Let’s go back to the section of why we serve, specifically where we discussed following Christ Jesus’ great example. Again, we do not serve simply because we are making an effort to be like Jesus, as he selflessly, consistently, put the needs of others above his own interests, but instead because we actually are becoming more and more like Jesus. Jesus is the epitome of selfless sacrifice; he is love, he is joy, he is peace, he is patience, he is kindness, he is goodness, he is faithfulness, he is gentleness, he is self-control. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” 

Galatians 5:22-25 (ESV)

And if we really are being sanctified, putting on a Christ-like-character, the character of Christ Jesus, the human form of God, the Son of Man who embodied servant leadership with a servant’s heart to the point of death, we too should be the epitome of the fruits of the Spirit

The form you have selected does not exist.

This sounds like an incredibly daunting call, and it should be, because we can’t ever be the perfect image of Jesus. In fact, if we could, God would not be God. Jesus was perfect, living a sinless life. As the human incarnation of God, fully human, yet also fully God, He did not have a sin nature like we do as mere human beings. 

You may be feeling pretty discouraged right now, and understandably so. But it is that feeling of defeat that should actually encourage us. It should ignite a fire in us to pray for our sanctification and put in the effort into our personal relationships with God (after all, a relationship takes two). It is only with the assistance of God, through his Spirit living within us, that we can truly achieve the heart of a servant. 

Once again, prayer is a follower of Jesus’ most powerful asset. Pray that as you search for opportunities, make opportunities, and do good works, you will begin to desire those things with your whole heart. That you would exhibit a selfless, genuine love, without a second thought. Whenever it gets hard, and you just want to hole up away from the rest of humanity (we’ve all been there), you would follow the great example we have in the life of Jesus and continue to set yourself aside, loving others and illuminating the salvation we have in the Heavenly Father through the Son of Man in a way that the unbelieving world has not yet seen and does not yet understand. 

 Remember, it is “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Sanctification is a lifelong process, and developing a selfless, true servant’s heart will come along in that process with prayer and supplication. 

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

Colossians 3:23-24 (ESV)

It is imperative that we never forget that, above all else, we are a servant of the Lord. 

You may enjoy this video by Pastor Greg Laurie on How to Have a Servant’s Heart

Or one of these highly recommended resources:

Developing a Servant’s Heart: Become Fully Like Christ by Serving Others (Charles F. Stanley Bible Study Series) by Charles F. Stanley 

THE HEART OF A SERVANT by Mr. Stacey James Daniels 

Growing a Servant’s Heart: 52 Gospel-Centered Service Projects for Families with Children of All Ages by Jennifer Ohaneson 

ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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