“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
— Matthew 5:43–48
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
— 1 Peter 2:9–10
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,
— Philippians 3:20
I love serving my wife. I’ll admit it. There’s not much I wouldn’t do for her. And most of the things I do for her, I enjoy doing. Really.
But, if I’m honest with myself (really), I must admit that serving her does come with some pretty great fringe benefits. As much as I serve her, she serves me right back, and more so. I’m not gonna lie. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Got anybody in your life like that that you love to serve?
OK, now let’s ask a different question: Got anybody in your life that you don’t love serving?
As much as I would love to pat myself on the back for being a great husband, I get just as much out of our relationship as I put into it. The love flows both ways. But there are some people we serve who never give back. When we find ourselves in these situations, how do we react? Do we draw back? Or do we keep serving, trying to ignore the fact that they are not reciprocating? How far should we go to serve difficult people?
Not surprisingly, Jesus had something to say about that. And not surprisingly, His answer is surprising.
We might try to imagine what serving a difficult person could look like, but as it turns out, we don’t have to. Jesus already did that for us. Here are some categories He came up with:
- someone who does physical violence to us
- someone who takes us to court
- someone who takes advantage of our time and resources
- someone who keeps asking and asking and doesn’t give in return
Can we all agree that these are exactly the type of people we don’t want to serve? We’d much rather serve those who appreciate us, make us feel good about ourselves, and perhaps even serve us in return. But that’s not the way life works. And that’s not the way God’s kingdom works, either.
That’s because God’s kingdom operates on grace, not merit. And by serving those who don’t deserve it, our unmerited acts of kindness reflect the grace that we have received as members of that kingdom. It defines who we are. Through Christ, we are no longer citizens of this world but citizens of a heavenly kingdom from which we await the return of our King. And while we wait, our behavior should point toward the one for whom we are awaiting.
Does this mean that we let anyone and everyone take advantage of us in the meantime? Do we, in a sense, become human vending machines, where one can just push our buttons to get whatever they want?
No, this is not the case. Vending machines have no will of their own, and this is what makes us different. In every example that Jesus gave, the one who is wronged or mistreated has a choice for how to respond. And in each situation, Jesus calls us to do something counterintuitive.
When you choose to serve difficult people, you’re not a doormat. You’re a servant. Did Jesus serve difficult people during his ministry? Absolutely. (Even his closest friends were a handful at times.) Was he a doormat to them? Absolutely not. Every act of service, every moment of healing, every touch of deliverance, was completely within his control and an act of His will (His Father’s will, actually). When we choose to do the same, we are more like Him, therefore we are not weaker but stronger.
Knowing this may not make serving any easier, but it should give us confidence in making the difficult choices, knowing that our Savior did the same. If He counseled us to live this way, even though His teaching may seem illogical and out of touch with reality on the surface, we should trust and obey Him. What may seem to us like a recipe for disaster is actually the path to the abundant life that He came to give us. For in the abundance of God’s grace, there is enough for us and the difficult people in our lives.
So when it comes to serving, don’t hold back, don’t self-protect, don’t self-justify. Pray, seek God, and serve, even when the one you’re serving won’t serve you back. Especially then. The Christ in you will beckon the souls of others towards a better way — the Way — that your gracious acts so clearly represent. For, in the end, there’s only One you’re truly serving, and He is much, much more than deserving.