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What do you do in those moments when you’re afraid you’ve got it all wrong—that something you said or did was off the mark?

I had to wrestle through that question after I wrote last week’s post about Michael Card’s words:

“A lot of Christians don’t embrace Jesus as their servant, and it’s my contention that if you don’t know him as your servant, you don’t really know him. It’s the shape of his life.” (Michael Card, session 2, 20min)

In spite of all the verses I shared about Jesus laying down his life for us in the past, continuing to wash our feet as he prays for and sustains us in the present, and waiting on us at the coming banquet table—all of which I knew were true—I sweated and squirmed. Was the slant correct? Had I adequately balanced the need to receive Jesus’ serving of us with the need to worship Him as Lord? I’ve grown up singing a song about Jesus as our Servant King, but to think of Him not just as a servant but as my servant, well, that feels like a different thing.

Verses from Isaiah came to mind and as I searched I discovered that in the Old Testament, Jesus is only ever referred to as the servant of God (Is 42:1; 49:5-6; 52:13; 53:11). How did this fit with what I’d written? Is there a difference between Jesus serving me and being my servant?

It helped to see that in all of those passages, Jesus’ work is on our behalf. He is God’s servant, though He serves us.

I kept digging, turning this time to the New Testament. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced picture with its range of Greek words for servant, some used for Jesus’ relationship to His Father, and some for his relationship to us. (Stay with me here—there’s good news to be had!)

Pais (child, slave)

When the writers of the New Testament speak of Jesus as the servant of God (Acts 3:13,26; 4:30), the Greek word they use for servant is pais (or paida as it’s conjugated in these verses), which can simply mean a child (think “pediatric”) or it can mean “one who is committed in total obedience to another; slave, servant” (BDAG). Jesus, the Son, is committed in total obedience to His Father. That is great news. (Aren’t you glad the One guiding Jesus’ work in the world is not you or me or any other frail and biased person but the Creator who made and sustains the universe in love?)

Diakonos (servant, minister); diakoneo (to serve)

When Jesus is referred to as a servant of the Jews (Rom 15:8), or when Jesus says of himself that he “did not come to be served, but to serve [us!],” (Matt 20:28, Mark 10:45), the word “serve” is diakoneo (think “deacon”), which means “to render service in a variety of ways either at someone’s behest or voluntarily” (BDAG). 

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “As distinct from all these [other] terms [for service], diakoneo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another. . . . In diakoneo there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.” In other words, while Jesus is committed in total obedience to His Father, He serves us voluntarily, lovingly, in a whole range of ways. We receive the gift of being served in all the ways God knows we most need, but we are never Jesus’ master. 

Much of the time, I’m not even sure what to ask for, so it’s a relief to be reminded that I’m served by One who loves me and knows far better than I do what I need. 

This is news that lightens our burdens in another way as well. We are also called to serve this way —giving ourselves first and wholly to God for the sake of others. We aren’t asked to serve many masters. We aren’t asked to keep everyone happy. We’re asked to serve and obey only God, the One who loves us perfectly and doesn’t forget that we’re dust and delights to give us His best, and as part of our loving of God, to love and serve others, but not to let them decide the shape of our lives.

Doulos (slave); douleuo (to serve as a slave)

A third Greek word for “servant” might help us here. (Still with me? This is the last one.) Douleuo (think doula) means “to be owned by another; to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey (BDAG). We are to live in total service to God—because we can’t give this kind of total service and obedience both to God and something (or someone) else:

“No one can serve (douleuo) two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24 ).  

This word, douleuo, also shows up in the verse that pictures Jesus still serving us when he returns:

“It will be good for those servants (douloi – ones solely committed to another) whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on (diakoneo – voluntarily serve) them” (Luke 12:37).

So then: Is Jesus our servant? Yes. He is our diakonos – one who voluntarily serves us in love. And I don’t know about you, but I sure need to receive his gracious serving in order to have the courage and strength to, with Him, serve the only One who can rightly direct my life.

And all my wrestling and questioning? Turns out there was Someone serving me, helping me in it, leading me deeper into truth (John 16:13).

Climb every mountain: a new word for a new year

I attended The Sound of Music with a friend on Saturday. The summons to search until we find what we’re called to and then live it fully is still ringing in my head:

A dream that will need
All the love you can give
Every day of your life
For as long as you live

There’s a determination to it, a purposefulness. An intentionality.

Climb every mountain
Search high and low
Follow every byway
Every path you know

Climb every mountain
Ford every stream
Follow every rainbow
Till you find your dream

It’s not just The Sound of Music that calls us to search for a dream that will take all the love we can give, and then pour ourselves into it. 

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:13, c.f. Deut 4:29, Matt 7:7-8)

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, . . .” (Col 3:23)

It’s that time of year when I prayerfully choose a new word that I want to shape my life over the coming year.  Or when that new word chooses me. This year, that word is intentional.

Over the past decade, I’ve been living the call to make my home in God’s love. That has meant letting go of plans and goals and career, and learning to rest in God’s love. That call will never change. It’s the call to all of us at the heart of the gospel, and the root from which our life of discipleship springs:

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. . . Make yourselves at home in my love.” (John 15:4,9 The Message)

But God offers us a number of different images to help us see how to make our homes in God’s love. Some, like the vine or the infant, seem quite passive. They highlight God’s role in the process and our dependence on him. We make our home in God’s love by trusting his goodness and his grace and learning to rest in that love. 

Other images, like the bride and the athlete, make our part in the process of transformation and shared life more explicit. We choose. We say no to some things to say yes to something better. In these images, “love” is as active a word as “run.” 

The two are not opposites. They fit together and complement each other. It takes at least as much intentionality to rest and trust as to work. Part of making our home in God’s love is responding to his call to come to him and rest (Matt 11:28-30). Another part of making our home in God’s love is keeping God’s commands to love Him and others:

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.”

(John 15:9-10, The Message)

Though there is much that only God can do in us, He chooses to do very little of that without some sort of involvement by us. (For example, it is as we contemplate the Lord’s glory that we are transformed into His likeness. 2 Cor 3:18, c.f. Phil 2:12-13)  And this is grace. God honors us by making us in his image, persons with real choice, real agency. He pours out his love and his salvation, but he does not force them on us. He respects us by refusing to write our stories without our involvement. We co-write our stories with God in the ways we choose to respond to Him.

This year I began praying about my new word for the new year as I was paying attention to what was taking place in me during Advent. I was feeling all over again both my longing for God and the places I resist his coming as King in my life. I was becoming aware of, and grieving, the places I’ve slipped into laziness.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working through the questions posed by Lara Casey in her 2020 goal setting blog post series.  I’ve pondered her question, “Where do you want to be when you’re 80 (or 90 or 100)?” and paid attention to the places I want to change. As a result, I’ve written out several areas in which I want to be intentional this year, and why it matters. For example, I want to eat intentionally because I don’t want sweets, or anything else, to take God’s place or mine in deciding what this body does. And because this body is entrusted to me by God and I love Him by caring for it well. I want to be more intentional about ending my days with Scripture, because I want this God who loves me and whom I love to have the first and the final word in my days.

What about you? Are there places you want to be more intentional in the New Year? Is there a new word that seems to be calling to you as we begin this new year? I’d love to hear it!

For you who are highly favoured

Each Advent I marvel all over again at these words:

“Greetings, you who are highly favored; the Lord is with you.”

The words aren’t just for Mary. That same Greek verb which means “to highly favor” is used just one other place in the New Testament, this time of us: “. . . his glorious grace, with which he has highly favored us . . .” (Eph 1:6)

Mary is as surprised to be greeted in this way as we are. “You who are highly favored”. What does it mean? The angel clarifies with a phrase common in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The Lord is with you.” Each time this promise is given, the recipient is being entrusted with a particular task (Gen. 26:24; 28:15; Exod. 3:12; Judg. 6:12; Jer. 1:8; Acts 18:9–10). For Noah and Abraham and Moses, Gideon and Jeremiah and Paul, finding favor with God equates to being accompanied and equipped by God for a particular part in His great story. So for Mary. And so for us. . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”

Mary still has questions. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. . .” (Luke 1: 35) These words aren’t just for Mary either. Luke, writing his story in two grand acts, echoes this phrase from the start of Act 1, in which Jesus is born of Mary and lives as a man in our world, at the start of Act 2, in which Jesus is borne in us into the world. Jesus speaks to his followers as the angel spoke to Mary, “when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8), you will receive power to make the impossible possible, and the miracle of God living in a human body will happen all over again.

We each have our questions. How can this be? How can we bear the Son of God into the world?

Mary was young, Elisabeth was “well along in years.” (Luke 1:18) Mary lacked the needed situation (marriage); Elisabeth had been desperately trying within the perfect situation for years and kept coming up empty. With these two examples, the angel brackets and encompasses all of our impossible situations, and answers them all with a few simple words: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

The question for us is as mysteriously simple as the angel’s reassurance. Will we cling tightly to our questions, or will we open our questioning hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ? “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

“. . . the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you. . . ” (Col 1:27)

An edited repost from the archives.

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What does it mean to you today that you are highly favoured, accompanied and equipped by the God of the universe for a particular part in His story?

The good news of being (un)worthy

This week I surprised myself. For a long time, my counsellor has wanted me to say, “I am worthy of. . .” rather than “I am worth enough to. . .”

I have resisted.

“Worthy,” used of myself, has felt too presumptuous, too entitled. Too opposed to grace. In my mind, God alone is worthy, and all I receive is by grace.

And that is true. For many things, that word does belong only to God. God alone is worthy to be worshiped. God alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. 

But this week, without prompting, I found myself changing an unhelpful and untrue belief to the statement, “I am human and I am worthy of presence and care even when I am sick.”

I’m realizing that the word “worthy” always begs two questions: Worthy of what? And why?

I’m realizing, too, that there’s inherent worthiness and bestowed worthiness and lived or earned worthiness.

Inherent: God is inherently worthy of worship. That’s who He is.

Bestowed: Every human being (and, for that matter, all of creation), is worthy of respect and care from ourselves and from other humans simply by virtue of being made and loved by God.

Lived: And we’re called to live lives worthy of the call we have received, and to entrust leadership to those who have shown themselves worthy (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27, Col 1:10, I Thes 2:12, I Tim 3:4, 8, etc).

In case we’re tempted to get too big for our britches, God makes it clear: we are not worthy of his love. God loves us because He loves us, not because of our intelligence or service, our good behaviour or even because His image is woven into each of our cells (Deut 7:7-8). His love is freely given, sheer grace. This is good news. We did nothing to earn God’s love, and we can do nothing to make Him stop loving and longing to draw us deeper into his love.

And yet, He makes it equally clear: His love bestows a certain worthiness on us. In the world’s economy, the man in the sleeping bag on the downtown corner and the woman too sick to talk or walk or sit may have a net worth of nothing, or worse than nothing. But in God’s kingdom, they are just as worthy of our respect and presence and care as we are, simply because we are all made by God in his own image, and treasured by Him (Gen. 9:5-6).

Why do I hazard a step into exploring this word that can be so easily misunderstood? Why not stay safely back in the realm where the word “worthy” is reserved for God alone, and think of myself as unworthy?

  1. Both Jesus and Paul use the word “worthy” more times of human beings than of God, and if I want God to shape my life, I need to prayerfully ponder Scripture and be open to God shifting the way I think of Him—and of others and myself.
  2. As Jeremy Begbie says, “All good theology is done on the cliff-edge—one step too far and you tumble into idolatry, one step back and the view is never so good.”[1]
  3. As is evident in some of our beautiful old hymns, if we don’t think carefully about what we mean by “unworthy,” we can easily slip into the error of equating “unworthy” with “worthless.” And that both insults the God who handmade us and leaves us trying to defend or prove ourselves, or give up on ourselves and the work we’ve been given, or any number of other unhealthy postures.

No one who has been individually crafted by the God of the universe to reflect His own glory, and has had the breath of life breathed into her by that same God who counts each hair on her head and knows what each of her days will hold and has planned and suited her for special work that only she can do, can ever be considered worthless, or unworthy of our love and care.

What, then, do we do when we recognize that while we are unworthy of God’s love, we are, by that love, made worthy of the respect and care of ourselves and our fellow humans?

Well, what did Jesus do with his much greater worthiness? He didn’t cling to it, flaunt it, or use it to get his own way. He didn’t need to cling, flaunt, or manipulate, because He knew who he was. And so, having nothing to prove, He was free to humble himself, stooping with a basin and towel and letting his arms be stretched wide on the cross, so that we might begin to believe that we, too, are made worthy by His love. He lived the love He had received from His Father. He acted in a way worthy of the calling He had received.

He calls us to do the same: to rest in His love that makes us worthy, and then, secure in that love, to love others in a way that lifts them up too (John 15:4,9; Matt 11:28-30; Phil 2:5, John 13:14, 15:12-13).

“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith” (2Thes. 1:11).

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[1] Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 279.

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Your needs and the needs of others: the good news about balance

It’s one of the questions I struggled most with in Afghanistan, and continue to struggle with now: How do I balance my needs with the needs of others? How do I concurrently live the realities of life in this limited body and Jesus’ unequivocal call to love others as he has loved me, and to take up my cross and follow him? 

This week, the question arose again through a couple of requests which I didn’t have the energy to meet, along with some words from a Bible verse that I’ve long stumbled over:

“. . . in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). 

How do I understand this? It seems to command that I see myself as “less than,” inferior to everyone else, and to insist that I always subjugate my own needs and desires to those of others.

I want to love well. I am willing to give my hours, my life, to serve God and others. But over these recent years, God has seemed to say in a myriad of ways, “You matter too.” My limitations insist that I slow down, learn to say no, and keep praying through the questions and complexities.

So this week I slowed down and read those words more carefully in their context. Those words follow these ones:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but. . .”

Paul is not talking about basic self-care, or living within our limits, or stewarding our health, our gifts, and our core relationships. He is talking about “selfish ambition and vain conceit”—prideful pushing others down and ourselves up, climbing the ladder by stepping on others, arrogantly thinking that we are better than others. The treatment for that kind of arrogance is turning the situation around and humbly considering others better than yourself.

            Paul continues his words with the example of Jesus who modeled this kind of humility perfectly —and it was not about letting the desires of others determine his days. He was single-minded and knew how to say no. When the crowds were wanting more of his miracles, he left to be alone with his Father. He said no to the plans that both the crowds and his closest friends had for his life—to be a military leader and free them from the Romans. This humility had nothing to do with insecurity or thinking himself or his task unimportant. Precisely the opposite. It was tied to a view of others as precious enough to be worth his single-minded faithfulness to his God-given call. 

Jesus’ vocation was not determined by what each individual wanted, but by what God knew the world needed. He honored others most profoundly not by saying yes to their requests (though he did that when he could), but by remaining faithful to his God-given call and stewarding himself and his relationship with his Father in a way that strengthened and enabled him to fulfil his unique calling.

In case I missed what God was saying, he spoke again the next day, this time through a friend who, unbeknownst to me, has also been working through Philippians, and “just happened” to mention, without my saying anything about Philippians, what she’d been seeing in the verse immediately after the one that had caught my attention.

 “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4).

Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t look to our own interests, just that we shouldn’t look only to them. We should also look to the interests of others. In God’s sight, we all matter, we as much as those we are called to serve. The question is not whose needs are more important, but which needs (including my own) God is calling me to meet right now, and which he intends to meet in another way.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, willingly giving up our life with the promise that as we do so, we’ll find it. And when he lived this among us, he was careful also to model not laying down his life when it was not the Father’s way or timing. Early in his ministry, when the crowd tried to seize Jesus to throw him off the cliff, Jesus walked right through the crowd and went on his way. Later, when he knew his time to lay down his life had come, though he could have called 10,000 angels to intervene on his behalf, he instead let broken people nail him to the cross. He listened to his Father’s heart and calling on his life and said yes to what fit with that and no to everything else. And we are called to do the same.