FF Chong—London, UK
WHAT IT MEANS TO SERVE
For most Christians, to worship God means coming to church, singing some hymns, listening to a sermon, and saying a prayer or two. Over time, weekly church attendance becomes routine, and the worship of God inextricably linked with the setting of a church service. At a push, we may bring our worship home in the form of a family service.
When it comes to serving God, we tend to see it as separate from worship. We approach divine work as fulfilling the duties assigned to us by the church. As long as we perform these tasks with a willing spirit, God will take delight. In fact, we further compartmentalize our service to God in its own sphere—it is something we render to God in the confines of the church, away from our personal and work lives.
However, the Bible’s concept of worship and service is very different. Rather than being distinct from the rest of our day-to-day life, worship and service are very much woven into a Christian’s existence and purpose.
Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. (Gen 2:15)
After God created man, He placed him in the garden. But it was not for man to idly enjoy; rather, God set man “to tend and keep” the garden. Here, “tend” is translated from ābĕdāh, whose root meaning is “to serve, cultivate, enslave, work.” In other words, it was God who gave man work, and entrusted man to work for Him. Man has been divinely ordained to serve God through his labor.
This gives rise to the fundamental truth that to work for our livelihood is God’s will for us: “Six days you shall work” (Ex 34:21). God ordains when we should work and when we should rest. Not only that, our labor must reflect the godliness that God expects of His children. Paul elaborates on this expectation for our secular jobs:
Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men. (Col 3:22–23; see also Eph 6:5–8)
We must work for our employers with sincere hearts, as to Christ. For a believer of God, work goes beyond the scope of earning a living—it is to fulfill God’s will. We should do our secular work with goodwill, as a service to God.
Serving God, then, is not only about attending service on the Sabbath day and doing divine work in church. Just as Adam had to tend the garden daily, service to God is a daily and active affair. Serving God daily and actively occasions many moments to ponder and gain insight into how to improve ourselves and our service. And most important of all, it gives our lives purpose and meaning.
SPIRIT OF SERVICE
We all desire our service to be acceptable to God. But it is important to remember that God’s acceptance is incumbent on the way we conduct our lives. God’s acceptance of our service does not depend on the type of work; He looks at our hearts more than anything else. If we live our lives contrary to His divine nature, our service will not be acceptable to Him. However impressive the work, a corrupt nature will render it invalid and even abominable in God’s eyes.
The example of Cain and Abel says it all. Cain murdered his brother because Cain “was of the wicked one…[and] his works were evil” (1 Jn 3:12)—his behavior reflected his wicked nature. The rejection of Cain’s offering was the tipping point for evil to get the better of him. God exposed his wicked nature, telling him, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door” (Gen 4:7a).
God’s rejection of Cain’s offering reveals to us that the way we conduct ourselves impacts our service to God. Spiritual cultivation becomes a must, as the foundation to every service we render. It must be infused into every aspect of our lives.
PREPARATION FOR ACCEPTABLE SERVICE
With All Our Heart
At Saul’s ordination, Samuel addressed some important teachings relating to serving God. Leading up to Saul’s ordination as king, the Israelites demanded that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. This demand, however, did not originate from a positive impulse. Rather, it signals their shift towards a Gentile lifestyle and model of nationhood in a blatant disregard for God and a demonstration of their unfaithfulness.
Samuel was determined to guide and correct this renegade nation, and he put forth an unchanging principle to them: serve God with all your heart. He even stated this twice in his address to the Israelites (1 Sam 12:20, 24). In the first instance, Samuel said, “You have done all this wickedness; yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart” (1 Sam 12:20b). Samuel did not hesitate to right their fundamental wrong—God is their King, and the wish to replace God with a human ruler was wicked. Nevertheless, even if Israel insists on installing a king, Samuel reminded them that they must still follow God. The nation would not be able to serve the Lord wholeheartedly without this basic principle of obedience. In other words, submitting to God’s word comes before serving Him.
In the second instance, Samuel added two more factors to the equation. The first is: “Only fear the LORD, and serve Him in truth with all your heart” (1 Sam 12:24a). To “fear the Lord” is the mindset they should have. The nation of Israel has committed the greatest evil, which is to forsake God. They needed to eradicate all false gods in order to start anew with God, believing Him to be the only true God and Savior. Returning to God may well be a long and painstaking process, but it is the very foundation of meaningful service towards Him. The second is: to serve the Lord “in truth.” The nation of Israel was to reacquaint herself with the Law of Moses and serve God strictly according to His way, rather than following the Gentile way of life and worship. This was a reminder that they had to be faithful to the word of God in their service to Him, keeping His word in accordance to His will, and never again assimilate pagan religious practices into their pure faith. Otherwise, God would withhold His divine acceptance and blessing.
What would be their motivation to serve God in fear and truth? Samuel told them to consider the great things God had done for them (1 Sam 12:24). Historically, God had saved their forebears from the Egyptians; the story of this great deed was passed down from one generation to another. In Samuel’s time, God again saved them from extinction by the hands of the Philistines. On reflection, these deeds should lead to a greater understanding of God’s love towards His chosen (Deut 10:15). How could the Israelites respond, if not with gratitude?
Samuel reminded the Israelites that in serving God with all their heart means a service that is founded on obedience, fear, and truth. This means having a willing heart to serve God, a fear for God as their rightful Ruler, and keeping the word of God faithfully without bringing in other pagan or secular ideals. These values likewise apply to us today in our service to God.
Today, understanding God’s love, as manifested through Christ (Rev 1:5), should similarly generate in us an unquenchable motivation to reciprocate. The momentum of such gratitude will help us overcome any difficulties we face in the course of serving God, enabling us to serve with a heart of thanksgiving. Not only this, we would seek to do so in full obedience, departing from evil, and with a pure faith. We should be determined to remain faithful, knowing that we have already been saved.
With All Humility
Christ’s death on the cross is the most notable example of accomplishing God’s work with all humility. In order to carry out the work of redemption, Jesus, being God, humbled Himself to the lowest even before His incarnation (Phil 2:7–11). The very fact of His coming to the world is the epitome of humility. And in spite of unceasing opposition and shame showered upon Him, He persevered to fulfill the Father’s will.
Having learned from Christ’s example, Paul too submitted himself fully to God’s authority in his service. He understood the heart of Christ, which is a heart of sacrifice for the church. In his final message to the elders of Ephesus, this understanding is apparent in his care and tears for the church (Acts 20:17–35). He toiled and labored for the faith of the believers, counting everything as loss, and suffering the loss of all things (Phil 3:8–9). And he persevered, despite constantly being plotted against.
When we feel attacked or aggravated, our natural instinct is to become defensive and retaliate. But if we lose control of ourselves in such situations, we put the work of God in jeopardy. This is why Paul told Timothy to correct those in opposition with humility (2 Tim 2:25–26).
Correcting those taken captive by Satan is a mission fraught with danger. First, we expose ourselves to the risk of being deceived. Second, we risk being falsely accused by the deceived, since they are no longer capable of telling the truth. With humility, Timothy had to first submit himself to God’s will, by following Paul’s instructions. He would also need to exercise humility in the event of provocation and false accusation. Doing this would enable him to overcome the immediate discomfort, and to do whatever he can with reverence, in the hope of saving the deceived from Satan’s snare.
Evidently, to serve God requires us to forgo our own will and status. More often than not, to suffer shame and pain is part of serving God. However, all these become more bearable when our heart is no longer dictated by ego, knowing that Jesus Himself went through the greatest of suffering and shame for us. Humility directs our heart to let go of negativity and any sense of grievance. At the same time, it focuses our attention on God, which assuages any pain we feel in the process of accomplishing God’s work. The sense of peace and joy obtained from exercising humility, despite unrelenting fiery darts, is inexpressible.
With a Heart of Purity
The Book of Revelation gives a vivid account of those who survived the great tribulation. Instead of depicting the excruciating sufferings the saints went through, John emphasizes how the saints came through the trials unscathed. This provides us with food for thought. In our times of trial, do we only seek for a way of escape or are we concerned about keeping ourselves pure and righteous in the eyes of God (Rev 7:9, 14)?
In the vision, the victorious saints are standing on a sea of glass mingled with fire. The fire indicates their struggle against the beasts (Rev 14:9; 15:2), and the suffering they underwent. Despite their ordeals, the saints managed to find their way to come before the throne. They could only do so because of two elements. First, they kept their robes white and pure. Keeping our robes clean is the only way to draw closer to God, and it is by cleansing through trials that we experience God’s abiding presence. God is interested in the spiritual wellbeing of His chosen more than anything else. And it is only through purging trials that He ensures we are spiritually healthy (Isa 4).
The second element is victory. Aside from overcoming sins, John conveys the trust and endurance that the tribulation saints had to have. The victory that the saints obtained is a victory over deception. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus describes how deception will be ever on the increase, so much so that it will become profoundly difficult to identify. If we are to stand before God’s throne, then our top priority must be to hold to the truth in the face of great deception.
In our service to God, then, we ought to remember where our focus lies. It is not about escaping and finding the quickest way out of our trials and difficulties, but maintaining our purity and righteousness before God. Moreover, in the face of growing deception, we have to remain faithful in our service and to stand firm and not be swayed.
Serving God is a lifelong endeavor, which reflects the greatness of God’s love received by His people. Though once alienated from God and dead in sin, we are now made alive in Christ and are the children of God. We have been handed the opportunity to serve the Lord and, in fact, divinely ordained to work for God. Our service to God, however, is not to be isolated from our everyday lives. To serve God acceptably, as we have seen from the examples in the Bible, is to redirect our entire lives towards God: to serve Him with all our hearts, in obedience, fear, and truth. We serve Him with humility, even to the point of suffering shame and loss, knowing that God has to be placed before everything else in our service. And we serve with a heart of purity, a heart that is not shaken or stirred in tribulation or temptation, but that desires to stand before God on that great day.
The Book of Revelation indicates that the end-time true church has been divinely ordained to fulfill the final phase of God’s plan, during the most challenging time period. John reveals that, for our service to be ultimately accepted, we must stand before God’s throne. The greatest struggle we face is the work of the beast against the church, as he does his best to obscure the right way of salvation. Only the servants of God shall be sealed by the Holy Spirit, on account of their faithfulness towards the gospel of salvation (Rev 7:3; Eph 1:13). These victorious saints shall always serve before the throne of God (Rev 7:15; 22:3–4). Let us all therefore carry out our duties with enthusiasm and an appropriate conduct in the assurance that, by doing so, God will accept our service.
 James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), H5647.