We at Lee University hold “redemptive service” as one of our core values. “Redemptive service” can be defined, at least in part, as “helping others.” The math and science faculty defined “redemptive service” on a recent document as “applying knowledge in my major and my Christian faith to assist others.” Some fields of endeavor, however, provide help or assistance to very few. It is also true that the help provided by some fields stretches our commonly held definitions of “help,” but convincing arguments can and have been made to assert that intellectual and artistic pursuits offer “help” by enriching our lives and building culture. Here I would like to focus, not on the value of the endeavors, but instead on the problem of scope—on work done in obscurity and touching the lives of very few people. Academic papers often have a very small readership, for instance. Is the scholar’s work on an article published in a professional journal less valuable because it is read by only a handful of other scholars? Poems, musical compositions, and paintings often have a very small audience, especially because of the circumscribed cultural niches in our society with its many specializations. Not everyone is a Keats, a Mozart, or a Van Gogh. Many works fall into the dustbin of history, and the names of their creators end up in mere footnotes of a the annals of the history of their art, perhaps providing a context, a plain backdrop against which the real gems may shine more brightly.
If your work is to create, is it of lesser value if no one sees your creation? Must I deliver my paper in a nursing home for it to count as service? To be a part of culture, people of this generation or some future one must know my work or at least know of it. My work is useful if someone else is able to use my research to write a better book in the future, but what if my work ends with me, and no future generation finds it useful?
I think we must acknowledge that the size of audience and degree of influence factor into the value of our work as service. Service implies influence. If our work has no influence on others it is not useful; it is not service. But the audience for our work is bigger than our fellow humans, and that realization must qualify the way we evaluate the significance of our work as service.
Working with God as Our Primary Audience
We can and should offer our work as service to God. In Romans 12:1 God calls us “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.” This means that, in response to God’s mercy to us, we devote ourselves to God through the activities in which we engage. Notice that, having sacrificed yourself, you do not stop doing and working, but you no longer work as your own master. You seek to please the one true Master. This, we are told, is your reasonable act of “service” or “worship,” as the passage is variously translated. This makes sense, as the Greek word latreia seems to allude to service in in the temple, which is service to God and man and, at the same time, worship. Notice that temple service represents not only personal worship, but also facilitates communal worship. Others are involved. The object of worship is God. He is the primary audience, but others are fellow worshipers all offering their bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular).
God must be our primary audience. Jesus teaches us to serve others, to pray, and to fast all for God the Father, not to be seen by others. Otherwise, when others take note of us, we will have received our reward already. If you do things to please Him, “Your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” When we don’t do it for accolades from others, but for his pleasure, God is pleased, receives glory, and will reward us with pleasures at his right hand. The issue is not so much whether we are seen or not, but about our motivation. Who is our primary audience? That is the issue. If it were not so, Jesus would not also say to do good so that others “may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”
God must not only be our primary audience with others as onlookers, but He must be recognized as the source of our strength and energy. “Has God called you to help others? [To which we must answer, “Yes!”] Then do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies.” People will praise your Father in heaven for the good that you do because he is our acknowledged source. As Paul says, “I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” Joined to Christ, our work and his work by his Spirit are interwoven. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil 2:12-13) We work out what he has put in our hearts, given us the will to do, and supplied the strength and energy to accomplish. It is vital that we realize that he does not only call us to act for his glory, but he empowers us to do it. He does not give us work and then sit back with folded arms to evaluate our work. He gives us the gift of his presence, his Spirit, in order to give us the strength and the energy we need to live the new life he has sparked in us and to accomplish the good work he has prepared for us to do. I pray that we would understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for those of us who believe—the same power that raised Jesus from the grave and seated him in the place of ultimate power.
Loving Our Neighbors and Beneficiaries beyond Our Normal Sphere of Influence
With God as our primary audience and our power source, what about the onlookers, our neighbors? Our love for God shows itself most when we help “the least of these,” those who do not have the resources to return the favor. Our love for neighbor flows from our power source Himself. “Christ’s love compels us.” Jesus set aside his prerogatives as God to become a man in order to seek and save the lost:
“[H]e made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name…” (Phil. 2:7-9)
We can put the needs of others ahead of our own because he cares for us. Jesus is a never-ending spring of sustaining motivation, strength, and energy welling up in our souls and overflowing to those around us.
Recognizing our role as conduits of his overflowing grace, we still must grapple with the question of audience and influence. Who should we help? We are to help our neighbor, those with whom we come in contact in our church, work, and larger community. May God open our eyes to the needs of those around us and move within us to help them! But he also told us to “Go, make disciples of all nations,” which seems to imply that we must also move outside our immediate context to serve. In choosing whom to serve, we may again consider the likely impact of our work. God directed Paul to stay in Ephesus “because I have many people in this city.” Don’t move on, Paul, because many will respond to your proclamation of the gospel here.
What about missionaries in Japan, then, where very few converts have resulted from years of work by dedicated missionaries? Have the missionaries wasted their time? Should we keep sharing the gospel in Japan when we see such a meager response to the gospel there? Should we measure success by the number of converts?
Consider Jesus’s ministry. Should we measure Jesus’s work before his work on the cross by the number of his disciples? He invested deeply in a few people, but ultimately there was the promise of a global reach as disciples called others to walk in the Way Jesus had lived and taught. So are we to worry about numbers of disciples? Probably we should invest deeply in people and leave the growth to God. But we have this freedom from concerns about results only because we are surrendered and attentive servants ready to do his bidding. He will build his kingdom on the rock of faith and reliance on Him, not out of efforts done in our own strength. This puts the weight of deciding where we are to invest our efforts back on God, and on our willingness to listen to his voice of direction, his call. That is not to say that we do not exercise our creative energies to dream and plan how we will engage in redemptive service, but that we trust God to confirm or redirect us from what we have aimed to do.
We might not often think of the spiritual beings, besides our great God, that form a much larger audience. In Ephesians 3:10-11 we learn that about an audience before which God is unveiling his secret rescue plan. God’s plan was to shower the riches of his grace through Jesus Christ on people all around the world, not just people in the nation of Israel.
“God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NLT)
Job was on display before spiritual beings. God allowed the ruler of the rebellious spirits, Satan, to test Job in order to showcase Job’s faithfulness to God and prove that Job would not curse God if his comfortable life were lost to sickness and profound loss. The primary audience was spirit beings. Although his wife and three friends witnessed Job’s suffering and faithfulness, they were secondary and probably did not understand the larger context and significance of them.
A student of mine told of a middle-aged lady in his family’s church who was dying after a long and losing battle with cancer. After suffering on her bed for months with profound pain and being about to die, she exclaimed to her pastor “This had better count!” I think she was asking, Will my reliance on God in the midst of suffering, if done nearly in isolation, count for anything—especially when it seems purposeless? I hope the answer was given “Yes. It counts and you will receive your reward from the hand of the living God.” Would the answer be different if there were no husband, children, and church to support her and witness her suffering? No. I think God receives that kind offering without hesitation. Faith in the midst of suffering glorifies God. He is the main audience, other spiritual beings and family and church form a secondary ring of onlookers who see Him glorified in our faith and reliance on God’s proven character and on His promises.
It may be that those who have died before us are also aware of our lives here. The souls of those who had been killed for serving God are in heaven, and they seem to be aware of what takes place on earth. They cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10) Who knows who sees us, even in our most “private” moments.
We have an audience of One, and that changes everything. God is the ultimate judge of our work and also the guarantor that our work will be of eternal significance. In the end, all our work will be tested for structural soundness and quality of materials. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on judgement day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward.” (1 Corinthians 3:11-14)
There are two factors given here that ensure that our work counts and that our efforts are not wasted. First, our work must rest on the solid structural support of Jesus Christ, the source of our strength. We must build on the rock, not on shifting sand. To use another analogy, we are branches whose nourishment comes from Jesus, for we need his deep roots and strong vine to support and sustain us. Without him we can do nothing. If it does not rest on him, our work will not survive. And secondly, we must use quality materials, putting our best into it. His calling, the direction he gives us as our master, guarantees that our efforts are not misdirected, no matter what the number of people who see or benefit from our work. He determined the site, laid the foundation, and now directs us to build on it. And the enabling of his Spirit ensures that our work will not only have structural integrity but also great beauty in his eyes.
When my daughter gives me a drawing as a present, I see not its imperfections, but the way the talents God has given her are on display there. I see it as an expression, through her concentrated efforts, of her love for me and as an expression of her enjoyment of the creative process. I am filled with gratitude and joy. God likely feels some of the same emotions in receiving our efforts when offered up to him. And sometimes those gifts are more meaningful because they are for him alone, not for anyone else.
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. (Matthew 26:6-11)
It is good to pour out our resources of time, goods, and energy on our savior to do something beautiful for him, even over and above the needs of others. And there is an urgency about it, not because we will not always have him, for we will enjoy him through all eternity, but the precariousness of our existence in these mortal bodies makes this fleeting life the one window of time in all eternity when we can choose to sacrifice ourselves for his glory.