We all know the priority of service. But how is it possible to serve when you are suffering? That is is an important question because all of us suffer hardship. Christ Himself acknowledged that fact — “In the world you have tribulation…” (John 16:33).
And this has been our very own experience. We have various kinds and various degrees of hardship, but all of us experience some measure of suffering — illness, financial and job burdens, heartache over broken relationships, illness, untimely death (and all death is untimely), concern over a parent’s or child’s salvation and whether they will spend all of eternity suffering the horrors of Hell. We suffer these hard realities of life — and more.
How will we then live life? And how will we live life in the Body of Christ? Is it possible to serve others in our church — and in our culture — when we carry in our bodies this death and dying (2 Cor. 4:7ff)?
That is a question that was answered by Christ through what He both said and did as He met with His disciples on the night of His betrayal and trial (John 13:5-17).
All of Jesus’ words to the disciples on that night were in the context of the eternal plan of God and the sinful deeds of Judas and the immoral rulers coming together in His death. In that context of suffering, what did Jesus do, and what did Jesus say?
Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. It wasn’t just “Jesus” washing their feet, but the Lord of all glory who with deliberation washed them! Those who thought they were greatest had their feet washed by the One who is greatest!
Jesus commanded the disciples to do the same. The followers of Christ (both His 11 and us) are to have the same kind of humility towards others, not clinging to their position (either real or imagined) in order to preclude service.
Followers of Christ are to offer the same kind of service in difficult circumstances. The command you also should do as I did to you (v. 15) refers not only to the action of service, but to the context in which that service takes place. In the midst of suffering (remember, we all suffer hardship and difficulty — that is a given), our service of others is a demonstration of the humility and love of Christ.
How could Christ serve in the presence of suffering, and how could He command us to do the same? From a human perspective (and this is what we can emulate) He was bolstered by three fundamental truths.
First, Christ knew that He was going to the Father (v. 1). What would happen to Him in a few hours on the cross was not His “end.” The “end” of Christ would be His exaltation at the right hand of the Father — for all of eternity. Hear this: Christ’s focus was not on the cross, but on the Father and on His sure return to fellowship with Him.
He also knew that all things were given to Him (v. 3). All authority was His; all victory was His; all glory was His; all judgment was His; all life was His; and all power was His. All that He needed for that night — and for eternity — belonged to Him. Because He was secure in that knowledge, He picked up the towel of service.
Secondly, Christ loved the disciples. He loved the disciples because the Father had given them to Him. So He loved them fully (to the end) and to the completion of their lives. There was no limitation to His love.
Finally, out of His relationship with the Father, Christ picked up the towel of humility and served — on the night of His great agony. He served because He loved pleasing the Father and submitting to the Father’s will (which in this case meant the cross) more than He loved or desired His own will and the avoidance of the cross (Mk. 14:35-36).
How then can we serve like Him, when suffering? By being bolstered by those same three truths.
First, we serve by knowing that we are going to the Father — our end (regardless of our position on earth) will always be better than our beginning!! Our focus must not be on our hardship but on the Father and our sure departure to Him and the momentous weight of his eternal provision for us. This was also the perspective of Paul:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. [2 Cor. 4:16-18]
Secondly, we serve by loving our brothers. Genuine love will always lead to genuine service. By this the world will know that we are His — when we love each other enough to serve each other, even in the context of our own hurts and sorrows. A pastor I had in seminary well said, “I can’t wash the feet of Jesus in the body He had, only in the Body (the church) He has.” We demonstrate our love for Him by our perpetual love of the church body.
Finally, our service is based on our fellowship with the Father. Our service may be our obedience and faithfulness to the Father in the midst of our personal crisis; it may be a well-spoken word to a fellow-sufferer; it may be a humble activity even while our own hearts are in pain. Whatever the act of service, it will be, like Christ, rooted in our relationship with the Father. Service, whether we are suffering or rejoicing, will always be an overflow of our love for the Father and our dependence on Him.
At the top of this post I asked the question, “Is it possible to serve others when we carry in our bodies this death and dying (2 Cor. 4:7ff)?” That is in fact a poor application of 2 Corinthians 4, which actually reads,
But we have this treasure [the Gospel] in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. [my emphasis]
Not only can we serve others in our hardship, but it is in that service that the power of the gospel in our lives is most fully revealed. Our own hearts are encouraged so that we are not crushed…, not despairing…, not forsaken…, and not destroyed. And we also demonstrate most fully to others the great glory and wonder of God Himself — in our mortal (dying) flesh, Jesus is manifested (glorified). And therein is the blessing. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them (John 13:17).
That’s the secret to serving when suffering.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons