4 Roadblocks to Serving Others—and How to Get Around Them

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Serving the needs of others is like a road trip. We pull out onto the “road” out of interest and compassion for others, but immediately something falls in our way. We grind to a halt. Often, it seems like sacrificing for others is too hard—almost impossible—to accomplish on a regular basis. Here are four ways to get around the roadblocks we encounter when it comes to helping others.

1. Move toward need, not comfort.

What starts your engines and moves you to serve? Rarely does anyone wake up in the morning and think, “I want to live for someone else.” Our hearts by nature do everything to protect our own comforts. If someone cuts in front of us at Starbucks, or if the barista gets our order wrong, our comfort protection sensors start going off. We cry out, “This is my ‘me’ time!” Doesn’t everyone love how Starbucks guarantees to either make an order perfectly or make it over again? They know catering to our comfort works.

John Piper, a retired pastor in Minneapolis, once said something that stuck with me: “Christian, move toward need, not comfort.” He was referring to Hebrews 13:11-16 and connecting Jesus’ sufferings outside the gate of the city of Jerusalem to the call for us to suffer and serve those whom society views with reproach. When we are consumed with protecting our comforts, the engine of sacrifice simultaneously stalls, preventing us from serving others with real needs.

2. I can’t do it, but they can.

We also frequently think: “I’m not trained for that! Get a professional.” There are certainly many service tasks that require professionals. Everyone expects their doctors and lawyers to have education and training. Most of the bothersome tasks in life, however, require little or no training. Yet, we have to have eyes to see everyday needs.

Have we noticed the mom in the grocery store parking lot as she tries to get her children locked in their car seats while also attempting to put away her cart? Have we just walked by as the elderly person in our neighborhood tries to weed their garden? Have we noticed the tired eyes of young parents who may feel incapable and alone and could really use companionship? Many of the small and big sufferings in life can be remedied if our eyes are consciously open to the sufferings of others.

3. Service depends on grace.

Perhaps the most profound roadblock to service is what I call the “reciprocity principle.” If I take care of other people, who will take care of me? What will I get out of this? Much philanthropy depends on this. Give your money away and get a tax refund. Every time I drop my old clothing at Goodwill, they ask me if I want a receipt. That means I can tell the IRS I have given things away and get something in return. We all live on the “reciprocity principle.”

God’s love isn't like that. His love is one-way love. Before he created the world, God didn’t need anything else. The three persons of the Trinity were perfectly fulfilled in their own fellowship with each other. God lovingly created humans without needing anything in return. Imagine that: no reciprocity principle.

Yet, we see gracious service most clearly when God took on flesh. Jesus loved without strings attached. “This is love,” the apostle John writes, “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The Son of God himself served us to the death—literally—without thinking, “What will I get from this?” One of the most famous passages in the Bible includes a simple phrase we sometimes overlook, “For God so loved he gave” (John 3:16). That is service that is freely given—with no expected return.

I remember how hard it was when my first little girl was born. She was someone I cared for hour after hour, and she couldn't even say two simple words: “Thank you.” She fell asleep easily throughout the day, while my head pounded and my eyes blurred from sleeplessness. My comfort-seeking heart groaned to be repaid in some way. I came to realize that my service before having children was not gracious. I always wanted to be repaid.

When we have tasted the one-way love of God in Christ, we can better understand how to serve others selflessly, without requiring others to thank us in some tangible way.

4. Here we have no lasting city.

The passage I began with in point one, Hebrews 13, ends by saying that we can't keep the things we build here: “Here we have no lasting city” (Heb. 13:14). This shouldn't make us so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. It should instead jumpstart our serving engines to move toward the needs and sufferings of others.

If we have a safe, eternal city kept in heaven for us, we are free to give away everything we have in this life. Our possessions, which sometimes define us, can't be taken with us when we die. In his first letter to his young charge, Paul tells Timothy to instruct wealthy people “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God” (1 Tim. 6:17).

Service and giving are the safest investments, and that is exactly where Paul finishes:

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Tim. 6:18-19)

Move toward need, not comfort. Be interested in the burdens and sufferings of others. The road ahead lies open, full of service opportunities that don't require any professional training. See how beautifully Christ loved us without expecting anything in return, and learn that kind of gracious one-way love.

Finally, fill your heart and longings with the eternal city you already have—and the inheritance kept in heaven for you. It will never perish, spoil, or fade. "Here we have no lasting city, we are looking for the city that is to come." That is the safest foundation that opens your heart to serve other people in the city in which you now live.

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