Paul tells servants (douloi) in Ephesians 6:5 to obey their “earthly masters with fear and trembling,” words often connected with the earnest examination of our status before God (Philippians 2:12, ESV here and following). That’s serious service. My waiter doesn’t tremble at the thought of getting my order wrong, but Paul tells us to serve others with that type of mindset. Why? Why would I serve people with the same zeal that I serve God? Let’s keep reading. In the next verse (6:6) he says that this service should be done “not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” This is fascinating. The service that we should render to other people is actually, properly speaking, service to God. Serve people with absolute devotion, but not in order to look good (“eye-service”) or make them feel good (“people-pleasers”), Paul says. Our service to others should be shaped exclusively by the will of God. My waiter, then, should be taking God’s order for me, rather than my own (I’d be a lot thinner if he did!).
I frequently get this backwards. I serve other people considering what they want (and sometimes what they need) and then I think that I’ve served God. That’s putting the cart before the horse—I’ll never properly serve people by primarily considering their desires, ironic as it may seem, any more than a horse can pull a buggy from behind. As a servant of others, I should primarily consider “the will of God from the heart.” Once God’s will is fixed in my eye—before me—I can pull others toward it, behind me. To be a leader, then, we need to serve others by considering first and foremost the will of God. We all know this, but we know it so often in the wrong way. We see this as a burden thinking that we need to serve man and God as if the task is doubled. However, the reality is that this biblical imperative makes our yoke easy and our burden light.
Serving people by considering God first is an incomparable comfort to those in ministry. The fear and anxiety that we so often suffer is ameliorated by the fear and trembling of a saint before God. Once we understand that our job is not people-pleasing but serving the will of God, we will cease to worry about whether or not people are pleased with us! Imagine a minister who is so convicted by the greatness of God, that the sneers and snickers of onlookers who scorn his “Biblicism” do not distract him. How powerful would the ministry of a people be if they were unabashed God-worshippers, to the point that no new social fad or law could ever dissuade them? How clear would our decisions be if we thought not about what would and would not make others happy, but what makes God well-pleased?
In our tumultuous world, navigation is increasingly difficult—how do we respond to CRT, LGBTQ, COVID, and all the other scary things so complicated we need acronyms just to talk about them? These are difficult questions but they are made impossible when we examine them with the goal being looking good (“eye-service”) and making others happy (“people-pleasing”). This is why the world is hopelessly divided today. Eye service and people-pleasing are the primary goals of worldly service. Therefore, harmony will never result since, as we all know, you can’t make everyone happy. But we, as Christians, can meet our goal because ours is different. We simply want to do the will of God. When we do so, Paul says, we are serving others better than any other person could—“with fear and trembling.”
This is why, I think, God was angry with Moses. Though he did the right thing on paper (he made water flow from the rock at Meribah), he did it with an impure motive. He wanted people to see him rather than Him. Moses (presumably loudly) struck the rock twice, when God told him to quietly tell the rock to bring forth water (Numbers 20:8). People a quarter mile back could see that famous staff swinging in the air and they would know Moses was up to something. But if he just whispered, “gush, rock” everyone would know God did the work.
When we “serve” like Moses did in that moment, we turn the attention toward ourselves and we get burdened by the desires of people. But when we, on the other hand, consider the glory of God and His will, the thoughts of people fade into the background and our hearts rest in His. We know we are doing the right thing. This isn’t to say what people want isn’t important, but it is to say that we should be so enraptured with the will of God that people’s desires don’t cause us consternation. God has called us to serve people by doing His will, not theirs. If people don’t always (or, usually, ever?) want what God wants, why do we think that their satisfaction is such a reliable indicator of our success? Maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves in a position where people are angry and God is well-pleased. Is that, biblically speaking, so hard to imagine?
So, as we all try to navigate an increasingly hostile environment, God extends us a lifeline. He tells us to stop worrying so much about what other people want and to rejoice in His perfect will. “Follow me,” he says “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”