With God or For God?
A creeping fog blanketed the grass while I sat sulking on a slide at my favorite park. The grey clouds hovering above reflected the despairing state of my soul. Each morning my time with God at this park was usually a delight. I would overflow with gratitude for the generous ways He revealed His love for me, and I’d also thank Him for all the people He was bringing to faith in Christ through my witness. However this morning, I struggled to find the words to communicate the emptiness I was feeling until I finally gasped, “God, if my life is just about telling people about Jesus and serving them, I don’t want to live…WHAT IS MY LIFE?”
Five years prior I found myself sharing God’s love for the first time with a 16-year-old girl named Krystal, and He graciously saved her from a life of prostitution and sin. In this moment something was unlocked inside of me - for the first time in my life I viewed Christianity as something more than trying not to sin too much or having God provide me with good things in life. A newfound joy flooded my soul as God showed me just how much He wanted to partner with average people like myself to help EVERYONE begin life with Him. And my life of discipleship truly began.
Sadly, within just a few years of tirelessly giving my life to serve God and the people He so loves, that joyful invitation to serve people with God became a laborious duty of serving people for God. My identity was now enmeshed with my performance for God and how sacrificially I served others. I’d lost the joy, gratitude and hope I discovered that night I watched Krystal say yes to Jesus, and I found myself in a deep state of depression.
Many of us know that a life lived with God finds one of its expressions through serving. So out of our love for God we’re giving our time, talent and treasure to help the oppressed come into all God intended for their lives. Yet, many of us are sensing that we are so far from experiencing the fullness of joy Jesus promised we’d find in His mission. We realize we’re judging our discipleship by how much we serve others for God, all the while forsaking the joy of serving others out of an overflow of life with God.
I definitely didn’t know the difference between these two approaches to discipleship. So I found myself on top of a slide at a park gasping, “God, if my life is just telling people about Jesus and serving them, I don’t want to live…WHAT IS MY LIFE?” However, in love He spoke gently into my heart, “Read Deuteronomy 30.” Not being familiar with this chapter, I picked up my Bible and began reading, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (Deuteronomy 30:20 NIV).
When I read these words, I felt like I finally came home. I let out a deep exhale and was released of the heavy burden my soul was carrying. I now realized that I was not only to live life for God, but I was to live life with God. This passage teaches that the Lord was to be Israel’s destination, Israel’s ambition, Israel’s prize. The Lord wasn’t just to be Israel’s God but Israel’s home. And from Him, they would be a light to the nations and serve the world.
This distinction made all the difference in the way I approached discipleship. Instead of sprinting to look for ways I could please God by serving others first, I now found myself sprinting to simply be with God and enjoy Him. I enjoyed walks with Him throughout the neighborhood, pouring out my desire to know Him in prayer and listening for His sweet voice as I meditated in the Scriptures. Then from that place I continued fellowshipping with Him, receiving His heart for those He wanted me to serve and insight into ways He wanted to help them.
This new life of serving with God was liberating, light and joyful. And, unbeknownst to me, would lead to one of the most beautiful and enlightening encounters with God I never knew was possible. Our ministry team had just finished a week long evangelism plunge in Michigan and I sat by a lake amazed at how God graciously drew many people to faith in Jesus. The stillness of the lake’s waters depicted the deep stillness in my soul. That stillness was a deep awe that God would allow someone like me to partner with him in bringing people from bondage to sin to freedom in Jesus. Then just as the sun was setting over the still lake I heard these precious words: “Thank you.” It was so real that I looked behind me to see if my friends had found me, but no one was there.
In the next moments joy flooded my soul once again as I realized that the Father God was the one speaking to me, and in His kindness revealed his deep pleasure and gratitude for my serving His people with Him.
1) Many of us have been serving for so long we are unaware of the motivations presently leading us to serve such as compassion, duty, guilt, acclaim, earning favor with God, etc. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what your motivations are for serving, and listen for ways He may invite you to realign your heart with His motivations.
2) One practical way I’ve learned to serve people with God is to spend quality time holding those I’m serving before the Lord in prayer. I thank God for their lives and ask Him to unite my heart with His. Then realizing Romans 8:26 says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”, I spend time listening for what He wants to share with me about them and how I am to posture myself as I pray for and serve them. Spend time speaking with God now in prayer around those you serve and see how He leads you to pray for and serve them this week.
James Chambers is the founder of A Faith That Overflows, a ministry which coaches pastors in developing Discipleship-Evangelism cultures so their churches primarily grow by conversion. His seminars have equipped thousands of ordinary believers around the world to more deeply abide in Christ and be confident in sharing Him with others. He received an M.A. in Evangelism & Leadership from the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Get social @JamesChambersIV or email [email protected].