Monday, May 22, 2017

Serving God versus Following God

I have been debating within myself for awhile the difference between serving God and following God.  I have surmised that they are not the same; yes, they can overlap, but far too often they are not one and the same.

Let us take a brief respite from spiritual warfare to discuss this.  It all started when my daughter mentioned the One Word idea at the beginning of the New Year (2017).  I loved the idea of having one word from the Lord be my northern star for the year ahead.  My former pastor and I were having difficulties and I was trying to extricate myself from the church as graciously as I could.  I love serving God and so that is the word I picked:  "serve."

Sitting at my new church one morning, the Lord gave me the word He wanted me to have: "follow." At first I thought, "There really is no difference between following and serving God."  I have come to discover most emphatically there is.

Let's start with Jesus. How often do people gloss over those verses where Jesus is saying that all He does is in direct response to His Father?

John 5:19: "Jesus gave them this answer: 'Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.'"

John 12:49: "For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken."

John 8:28: "So Jesus said, 'When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.'"

Now, we as believers would say that Jesus served His Father.  I would rephrase that and say He served His Father only by following Him.  He spoke what His Father commanded Him to speak.  He did only those things commanded by Father to do.  

Perhaps we see Jesus going from person to person, event to event, with His Father's name on His lips, with His heart in the right place.  I now see Him differently:  I see Jesus up in the mountains, praying and asking His Father what He would like Him to do and say on this day.  Of course, Jesus wanted to serve His Father, but only by following His Father's lead.  

I have spent many years serving the church.  Serving God.  Serving others.  Same thing, right?  No. Now, serving the church is not wrong.  But, serving the church when God has not asked you to do so is.  For example, a well-intentioned woman asks you to serve in the nursery.  It's not wrong she asked you--there is a need to be sure--and she knows you love children.  It's already decided.  Right?  No. Serving the church and serving God are not identical.  If we think they are, then we risk several spiritual mishaps:

1.  I burn out because I am not operating in what God has called me to do.
2.  I am stepping in and doing something that God wanted someone else to do.
3.  Church leaders see a need and want it filled.  Have they waited on the Lord for guidance?  Is the overall program under God's leading?  
4.  Good intentions are not God-intentions.  It is not wrong to help out but only if I am acting in accordance with His direction.

How do you prevent those four things from happening?  Church leaders want us to serve God by serving the church.  So we always say, "Yes, I will be happy to help!" when approached.  

What if we said instead, "I will pray about it." 

Are we afraid that we won't sound spiritual?  That we will disappoint the person asking us?  That we will be disappointing God?  

Again, look at Jesus.  He went into the mountains to pray all the time.  He prioritized a relationship with His Father over serving Him.  Serving someone is not spending time with them.  Jesus wanted to spend time with His Father and His service, words, actions and thought all flowed from those intimate encounters with His Father.

Why do we do it differently?  We want to serve Jesus.  Why not instead of running out and serving soup in a homeless shelter, why not pray and spend time with Jesus, asking Him what He wants you to do?  It may be that He does want you to go to the shelter or perhaps He wants you to pray about the shelter.  

In James, he argues that good works come out of faith: "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."  (2:14-17).  

Faith is our response to God's grace.  God initiates reconciliation and we, by faith, appropriate it.  We then want to show our gratitude to God's grace by reaching out in His love to others.  That's the order I am talking about:  God's grace + our time spent in Him =  His will for us.

If we are always working on His behalf and do not spend enough time in fellowship with Him, what we do may be for Him but not of Him.

In closing, consider the prodigal son's brother.  He's out in field serving his father.  He's not in the house with his father.  He is furious with his brother, to be sure.  But his words to his father are even more disturbing.  Let's set the scene:   

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

'My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours...'
(Luke 15: 25-31)

The older son is so angry he won't even come in to see his father.  Yet, this brother was serving his father.  But because his relationship with his father has been replaced with serving, he was angry at his father's generosity to the other brother.  In fact, this brother sees his serving as "slaving."  Serving God without a relationship will lead to that sense of being enslaved to a church, and we serve not out of love, but out of obligation.  

The father gently reminds him that all the father has is his.  Did the son ever sit down with his father, and ask him for a party?  Did he ever spend time and see the grief in his father's face and have compassion for him?  Listening to his words, I think not.

Serving God?  Following God?  I choose to follow Him.  I will say to those who mean well when asked to serve in the church, "I will get back to you." I will pray, spend time with the Father and then do what He has asked me to do, and only that. 

Now, I bet some of you are saying, "What?  Ask God about everything little thing, or every time someone makes a request of me?"  That's exactly what I saying.  How did Jesus sustain His intense ministry for three years?  Read again the scriptures I gave at the beginning.  

If He orders it, He's in it with you.  

If you are just being nice, disappointment and burnout are around the corner.  

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