By Dave Smith
What do you envision as you follow Jesus in ministry? What do you picture yourself doing for him?
I used to picture big things, public things, things that would impress others, things that would bring renown (with proper religious modesty, of course). But when I left the Army and went off to seminary, I began to realize that serving Jesus in ministry might look a little different than I had imagined.
First my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The next year we lost a baby girl, Bethany, to anencephaly, failure of the brain and skull to develop. The following year we suffered a miscarriage.
I remember standing in the shower the night Bethany was stillborn. It was the first time I had been by myself since her death, and I was crying hard and loud. And in the midst of my pain God spoke to me, assuring me of his love for me in spite of all that I did not understand.
But this much I began to understand: following Jesus, even in vocational ministry, did not mean I would be immune to suffering and death. This was not the ministry greatness I had pictured. And it was not the kind of greatness the Twelve envisioned either.
In Mark 10:32-34, Jesus predicted his coming suffering and death. Earlier, after his first prediction, Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. Jesus responded to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” And then Jesus issued this call to greatness: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34, 35). True greatness demands death to self.
This is not the kind of greatness the disciples had in mind. We see this even more clearly after Jesus’ second warning of his coming suffering and death. They began to argue over who was the greatest. So Jesus called them to himself and declared, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and the servant of all.” Jesus does not oppose greatness. He redefines it.
True greatness comes through living as a servant. And living as a servant means submitting to the will of the Master, no matter what it costs, no matter how different it looks than what we expect. This is a difficult picture for most of us. And therefore, it is not the kind of greatness we usually pursue.
James and John were oblivious to Jesus’ new paradigm of greatness, asking for the places of honor in the coming kingdom. This does not mean they do not want to serve, but they want to do so from recognized positions of greatness.
Maybe that’s why some of you want to serve at a megachurch or go to the 10/40 window. I am not denigrating vocational Christian service. In my role at Ozark Christian College, I help prepare ministers, missionaries, and church planters. But aspiring to Christian service is not necessarily the same thing as seeking the kind of greatness Jesus talks about.
There is a difference between taking on the identity of a servant and serving in a ministry position. As Richard Foster points out in his book Celebration of Discipline, there is even a difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry about people taking advantage of us, of walking all over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. We surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available, vulnerable.
We may not pursue God’s kind of greatness because it is not how we define greatness. Or we may not seek it, because we know what it demands. And we know it will cost us.
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Jesus told James and John. And then he asked, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
“We can,” they answered. But of course, they couldn’t suffer (drink the cup) or die for the sins of the world (be baptized with my baptism) as Jesus would.
And yet, as Jesus so often does, he met them where they were and affirms that they would experience suffering and sorrow as his followers. True greatness always comes at a great cost.
Over the last five years, my wife Nancy’s multiple sclerosis has grown significantly worse. She has gone from walking to a walker to a wheelchair, and her decline shows no signs of slowing. It has rocked our world. I have learned a lot about myself. What I might have suspected has been confirmed without question. I am selfish.
It is not that I didn’t always serve my wife, help around the house, or invest in my kids. It’s just that I did it pretty much on my timetable, according to my agenda. I chose to serve, rather than be a servant. Multiple sclerosis confronted me with this reality: either I live as a servant, or I don’t. I chose servanthood. But it has not been easy.
Sometimes the endless tasks mix with my own self-pity, and I boil over in cries of, “This is ridiculous. I didn’t sign up for this!” And God reminds me, “Yes you did: December 18, 1982: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. And when you decided to follow me, you committed to my ways: ‘Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’”
Servant greatness costs us comfort. I find myself doing things that Nancy used to do much better than me. I would much rather wash 50 dishes or 10 loads of laundry than put up one curtain rod. To me, that’s like building a rocket engine.
Servant greatness costs us control. Jesus told James and John, “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” Jesus refused to usurp the authority of the Father. When we live as servants, we surrender control. Though this disease has been difficult for me, it has been much tougher on my wife.
Nancy has always been the better servant. Now she has to depend on others for many things, little things she used to do so easily. God is redefining for Nancy what it means to live as a servant. No matter what form our service takes, God continues to teach our family that greatness comes through serving others.
This is what Jesus reaffirms in Mark 10. When the other disciples heard about the request of James and John, they became indignant. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
“Not so with you.” We are to live as servants, because we follow a servant God. For many of us, life will be a ministry of small things, of being as Foster calls it, “appropriately small”: helping someone with homework, getting up in the middle of the night with a sick child, cleaning up someone else’s mess, and other such acts in the ministry of the mundane.
Some would prefer a radical call to an unreached people group, the chance to spill their blood for the gospel. Some of my students feel God calling them to reach Muslims, at the risk of their own lives. This kind of denial seems exciting, as we say with martyr Jim Elliot, “Make me Thy fuel O Flame of God!”
But for most of us, living as a servant will not look like glorious martyrdom. It will be slow death, day by day, as if we are being crucified with tacks. Do you know what they call slow death? Torture. And that is what servanthood often feels like: “Dave, can you take that pot of spaghetti from the stove to the sink?” “Dad, can you pick me up at school at 7:00 PM?” “Dave, can you get me some hangers?” Dad, Dave, Dad, Dave, and on and on it goes.
And at those moments, as you struggle with your wants and wishes, your fatigues and frustrations, you have a choice. Do you sigh loudly, roll your eyes, and stomp off to do it? Or do you take a deep breath, pray, and serve, allowing God to nail another tack into your own inflated self-importance. Greatness in God’s eyes comes through living as a servant.
Why? Because true greatness culminates in Jesus, “who did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”; “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”; “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand . . . of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (see Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 12:2, 3).
Jesus is coming again. And we press on, so we will not be ashamed at his coming, so that one day we will hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Dave Smith has been professor of church planting at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, since 2003. Before that he served as minister of church planting for East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and vice president of development for Go Ye Chapel Mission (now Orchard Group Church Planting). After growing up in a non-Christian home, he graduated from the University of Michigan on an Army ROTC scholarship in 1981. While stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, he began attending East 91st Street Christian Church, where he came to faith in Christ and was baptized in 1982. After finishing his Army stint in 1985 he enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, where he earned the MDiv degree. Subsequently he served on staff at East 91st Street, with TCM International, and as minister with a new church plant in Nashua, New Hampshire. He and his wife Nancy have been married for 22 years. Their children are Katie (16), Joshua (14), and Amy (7).