Growing up, service was always a big part of my family. Even before I was a Christian my parents were teaching my brother and I the value of serving others. So it was no surprise that, when I became a Christian, I was trying to find ways to connect my faith to a life of service. As a result, when I got to college I started to spend time with friends doing service projects and being active in the surrounding community. I was burdened by the question, “How can my faith be an active part of caring for my community?”
During my sophomore year, several religious student organizations decided to get together to serve the local community. The idea was to bring Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, Pagans, and everything in between together in a campus wide act of service and sharing. It was an effort to show that people of different religious stripes can not only coexist, but also serve their common community for the good. The concept was pretty simple: spend the morning serving others side-by-side and then take time in the afternoon to share about why service matters to you as a person of faith. And it was during that conversation that I learned something deep and profound about how my faith connects to acts of service.
At one point in our discussion a student next to me chimed in:
I’m an agnostic and I want to say how cool this event has been. I mean, all we see on TV is how religious people are killing each other and fighting, and you guys have shown me that there is a different way to interact with each other.
However, I still have a problem. I’m reading all of these quotes from your religious texts and they keep saying things like, “We serve others to get into heaven” or “to be saved” or “to achieve enlightenment.”
But as a nonreligious person, that still sounds a little selfish to me. I mean, how can you really be serving others if, in the end, it is just about you getting some kind of spiritual prize?
Still being fairly young in my faith, it was the first time I had ever considered that question. But I decided to give it my best shot:
Well, I’m a Christian, and I believe that there is nothing I can do to earn God’s favor or work my way into heaven. That is a gift that God has given me through Jesus Christ. Because he came and died for me, I am welcomed in. So, any kind of service I do is just my way of saying thanks to God and serving my neighbor.
The agnostic student thought about it for a moment, nodded his head, and replied:
Yeah…that’s pretty cool. How about the rest of you? Can anyone else say that?
And there was silence. After about 10 seconds of awkward shuffling the conversation leader decided to shift the subject a bit, highlighting that salvation is the ONLY reason most people serve others, and the discussion continued on.
But that single question led to a paradigm shift in my faith life.
The truth is that any religious, philosophical, or spiritual system in which good works and service are required for salvation or enlightenment or acceptance from God is one that still has me at the center of it. I serve not only for the good of my neighbor, but so that I can be saved. I do good works not as an act of altruism, but as an act of self-service.
And that is what makes Christianity unique. It is the only system in which works are NOT a prerequisite for salvation. The Bible puts it this way:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
If one thing is clear from Scripture, it is that my good works don’t save me. Furthermore, God doesn’t need them. Quite simply, the Gospel takes the “me” out of service.
But that begs the question: “So why do good works at all?” Again, Scriptures points us in the right direction.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Galatians 5:13-14).
God doesn’t need my service. And I don’t need my service. My neighbor needs my service.
Christians serve others because they need help. We can be truly other-oriented because of the fact that our salvation is not something we earn by our own good works. We are freed for service by the grace of God for the blessing of our neighbors.
There is no “me” in service. There is no “I” in good works. We do them all for the sake of our neighbors, serving them freely and unconditionally in the same way the Jesus Christ has served us.
And yeah, that’s pretty cool.