Gaining when Giving of Ourselves by Lee Strobel
All the passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “God’s Outrageous Claims,” which was published in 1997 by Zondervan.
His name is George, but that’s not what the bullies called him at his junior high school near Chicago. Day after day they pelted him with names like “stupid,” “moron,” and “weird.” They taunted him, pushed him, punched him, and tried to goad him into fighting—all because George is a little different.
In the end they won a bitter victory. Because of the incessant harassment and the inability of teachers to curtail it, George’s parents pulled him out of school and are now teaching him at home.
Unfortunately, bullies are a way of life. They are the people who are stronger than we are—physically, economically, or whatever— and who take great pleasure in pushing us around just so we don’t forget it. Statistics indicate that three out of four people have been victimized by a bully at one time in their life. Said one expert, “Bullying is all about power”
In the preceding chapter, we talked about the phenomenal power of God. And if the old adage is true—that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely—it would be understandable if God were a cosmic bully, throwing his weight around, belittling and intimidating us and smugly rubbing our noses in the fact that in the grand scheme of things he’s the boss and we are nothing but puny and weak.
But that’s not what God is like.
Look at what happened as Jesus ate with his followers one day, as recorded in John 13. The third and fourth verses of that chapter constitute one of the most outrageous individual sentences in the entire Bible. It’s like a non sequitur, in which two thoughts just don’t seem to go together, because they’re fundamentally at odds.
The first part of the sentence says, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so. . .” In other words, Jesus was fully aware that he was God, that he was all-powerful, that he could do whatever he wanted, that he had existed from eternity as part of the Trinity and would soon return to his hallowed and exalted stature in heaven.
But then there’s that seemingly insignificant word so. So. . .knowing all that heady, ego-inflating stuff, what does Jesus do? Does he use his superiority to bully the disciples? Does he arrogantly demand that they pamper and cater to him?
Here’s the incongruous conclusion to the sentence: “So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist” Unexpectedly, amazingly, Jesus took on the demeanor of a servant, getting ready to wash his disciples’ dirty, grimy, smelly feet and gently pat them dry with a towel. The all- powerful, all-knowing Jesus was choosing to perform a distasteful task that was so demeaning that none of the disciples had been willing to stoop to do it themselves. What an incredible humble display of pure servanthood—from the One who could have rightfully demanded to be served himself!.
Who can fathom this great and wonderful mystery, that Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”?1
PASSING THE TOWEL TO YOU
Even though the concepts of raw power and lowly servanthood appear to contradict each other, both qualities unquestionably reside in God. Ultimately, God is a servant because God is love, and love by its very nature involves the giving of oneself. In fact, that’s the essence of Christ’s life as described in Philippians 2:6-8, which Eugene Peterson renders so masterfully in The Message:
[Jesus] had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.2
That’s what we commemorate on Good Friday—that Jesus served as our substitute to pay the death penalty we deserve for the wrongdoing we’ve committed. This Jesus, who by all rights could have been a bully, instead became a suffering servant for you and me, even though our rebellion and wrongdoing warrant nothing less than eternal condemnation.
Outrageous? Absolutely! It makes us want to exclaim, “Yea, God!” And yet that’s just the beginning of the story because Jesus then asks you and me to do something outlandish, too. Having towel- dried the last of his disciples’ feet, Jesus turned to those assembled and uttered these remarkable words: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”3
And here’s the point I want to make: It’s understandable that we would want to worship God for his willingness to be a servant so we could be forgiven and reconciled with him. But as counter-intuitive as it sounds, we also ought to be thanking him for inviting us into a servant lifestyle. Because in the end that’s where we’ll find the kind of soul satisfaction that we would otherwise miss if we merely lived to indulge ourselves.
THE INFLUENCE OF TOWEL BEARERS
Fresh out of journalism school, having worked as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune for only five months, I was given the intimidating assignment of writing a thirty-part series on the poor of Chicago. The concept was for me to profile a different needy family each day, telling their story in a human interest feature that would encourage people to give to the Neediest Kids Fund, a joint effort of the Chicago media to help underprivileged children at Christmas.
As I delved into this assignment, roaming the city in search of appropriate families to write about, I stumbled across something that I had never really thought about before. For the first time, my eyes were opened to the vast, informal network of Christians who were sacrificially serving the poor. I came upon food pantries, homeless shelters, clothing centers, job-training institutes, nursing homes, drug rehabilitation programs, sports ministries for kids—all operated by Christian charities.
I was especially inspired by an emergency shelter for homeless families that was operated by the Salvation Army on Chicago’s north side. During my research I became a regular in that facility, hanging around to talk with displaced families but also quietly observing the volunteers who poured their lives into selflessly serving these otherwise forgotten people. For me personally, the Tribune assignment faded into the background as I began focusing on the much larger story of what was motivating these Christians to give so much of their time, energy and money to helping others. As an atheist it just didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to know why.
These volunteers weren’t serving reluctantly or out of compulsion. On the contrary, it energized them. It seemed to bring them great excitement and contentment. It appeared to flow naturally out of their lives. Over and over I got the sense that they simply couldn’t not serve. It was woven into the fabric of who they were.
And their impact, though rarely written about, was mind-boggling. They founded hospitals, ran schools, provided food, donated clothing, performed counseling, rehabilitated buildings, cared for the elderly, served unwed mothers, weaned addicts off drugs, trained the unemployed, built homes, and offered encouragement. What’s more, they gave huge amounts of their money. One study showed that churches and synagogues contribute more than any other nongovernmental institution to America’s social services. Donations top nineteen billion dollars a year, with another six billion dollars’ worth of volunteer effort being offered annually.4
I learned that these “towel bearers,” who reach out to care for people much as Jesus washed the feet of his followers, are primarily motivated by gratitude for the way Christ served them with his death. And they have found that as a supernatural by-product of their servanthood, God has a tendency to flow satisfaction into their lives as well. Fulfillment isn’t their goal, but in the end it’s what they receive.
A few years ago while doing some research into the very different lives of Mother Teresa and the rock star Madonna, I came across an unexpected contrast. Here was Madonna, who has focused all her energies on trying to please herself, saying she doesn’t even know anybody who’s happy. But Mother Teresa has devoted her entire life to serving God and others, and she says she’s incredibly satisfied.
I wanted to know, What’s the origin of that kind of fulfillment? And through the years—first as a skeptic, then as a Christian myself—I’ve noticed six specific sources for it. Walk with me through these next few pages, and we’ll explore them together.
TOWEL BEARERS FIND FULFILLMENT IN BEING OBEDIENT TO GOD
John Newton callously dealt in the commodity of human flesh as a slave trader before Christ transformed his life. He’s best remembered for writing the song “Amazing Grace,” but one of his most enduring insights was a comment about servanthood. He said that if two angels in heaven were given assignments by God at the same instant one of them to go and rule over the greatest nation on earth and the other to go sweep the streets of the dirtiest village, each angel would be completely indifferent as to which one got which assignment.
It simply wouldn’t matter to them. Why? Because the real joy lies in being obedient to God. For a Christ follower the important thing isn’t what God has us doing; the important thing is that we’re doing what God wants us to do.
When we’re obedient to God’s direction for our life, the Holy Spirit gives us a quiet sense of affirmation, sort of like a celestial pat on the back. And I’ll tell you what: towel bearers live for God’s smile of approval on their lives. It fires them up like nothing else.
TOWEL BEARERS FIND FULFILLMENT IN USING THEIR SPIRITUAL GIFTS
When I traveled to a Christian-run orphanage in south India in 1987,I brought along an instant camera, because I knew the children had never seen a photograph of themselves. I would snap a picture of them, one at a time, and then watch the expression on their faces while the photo slowly developed in front of their eyes. As it gained greater and greater clarity, their eyes would get wider and wider, and they’d break into a broad smile. Then they’d giggle and laugh. They were absolutely fascinated to see what they looked like on film.
An analogous process happens to Christians when they go through a training course to discover their spiritual gift, that divine enablement that God gives each of his followers so they can serve him and others. The Bible lists such gifts as teaching, administration, evangelism, leadership, mercy, helping, shepherding, encouragement, and others.
As the course unfolds, the participants begin to see themselves as they never have before. They identify their gifts, explore their temperament and personality type, and discover that they are uniquely wired up to accomplish something significant for the kingdom of God. As they get greater and greater clarity about their potential to be a difference maker, it’s as if they’re seeing themselves in a completely new light.
I remember when I first discovered that my primary spiritual gift is evangelism, or helping others understand what it means to become a follower of Jesus. It happened out of nowhere one day when my boss at the newspaper asked me why I was a Christian. I had never explained that to anybody before, but I closed his office door and talked for forty-five minutes about the difference Christ was making in my life.
When I emerged from his office, it was as if my entire life up until that meeting had been a movie shot in very grainy black-and-white film with scratchy sound—but this forty-five minutes had been in bright, vivid Technicolor with rich Dolby stereo! Instantly I knew I wanted to develop and deploy my evangelism gift in any way I could from that day forward.
There’s a unique sense of fulfillment that comes when we submit our gifts to God’s use and ask him to energize them in a supernatural way—and then step back to watch what he does. It can be the difference between merely existing in black and white and living a life in full, brilliant color.
TOWEL BEARERS FIND FULFILLMENT IN COSTLY SACRIFICES
Fulfillment and fun aren’t necessarily synonyms. Lots of times, serving others is physically taxing, emotionally draining, financially expensive, or downright dangerous. Yet amazingly, those are the very times when God seems to delight in bringing an extra dose of grace into the lives of towel bearers.
A Hard-nosed British journalist saw this for himself when he traveled to India to see Mother Teresa’s ministry in Calcutta. After watching the volunteers serving with her, he wrote, “Their life is tough and austere by worldly standards, but I have never in my life met such delightful, happy servants, or seen such an atmosphere of absolute joy as they create.” Even in the midst of costly sacrifice, God was flowing a refreshing river of satisfaction into their lives.
I recently read a moving story that David Jeremiah wrote about the founder of World Vision, the international Christian relief agency. Bob Pierce had advanced leukemia, but he went to visit a colleague in Indonesia before he died. As they were walking through a small village, they came upon a young girl lying on a bamboo mat next to a river. She was dying of cancer and had only a short time to live.
Bob was indignant. He demanded to know why she wasn’t in a clinic. But his friend explained that she was from the jungle and wished to spend her last days next to the river, where it was cool and familiar.
As Bob gazed at her, he felt such compassion that he got down on his knees in the mud, took her hand, and began stroking it. Although she didn’t understand him, he prayed for her. Afterward she looked up and said something. “What did she say?” Bob asked his friend.
His friend replied, “She said, ‘If I could only sleep again, if I could only sleep again.’” It seemed that her pain was too great to allow her the relief of rest.
Bob began to weep. Then he reached into his pocket and took out his own sleeping pills, the ones his doctor had given him because the pain from his leukemia was too great for him to sleep at night.
He handed the bottle to his friend. “You make sure this young lady gets a good night’s sleep,” he said, “as long as these pills last.”
Bob was ten days away from where he could get his prescription refilled. That meant ten painful and restless nights. That day his servanthood cost him greatly. But even in the midst of his suffering, God infused him with a supernatural sense of satisfaction that he had done the right thing.5
I’m not saying that servants should constantly abuse themselves or merely become passive doormats. But I am saying that towel bearing inevitably carries costs, and even when the cost is high, God can nevertheless be counted upon to bring fulfillment to his followers.
TOWEL BEARERS FIND FULFILLMENT WHEN GOD TURNS THEIR PAIN TO GAIN
Some towel bearers are wounded servants. Having themselves faced tragedy or sorrow, illness or loss, they are then able to turn around and uniquely help people who are facing similar circumstances. They find particular pleasure—almost a kind of spiritual revenge against the injustice of a sin-corrupted world—as they witness how God takes their afflictions and draws something positive from them.
Yolanda Lugo is an example. Four years before I first talked with her, she had developed Hodgkin’s disease, which is cancer of the lymph system. For a twenty-year-old woman just beginning to enjoy life, it was a devastating diagnosis, especially since physicians warned her that the disease was already spreading rather extensively through her body.
Yolanda told me how she had asked God to give her the strength to battle her illness, and he did. He gave her courage and fortitude as she underwent chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and surgery. Eventually, her cancer went into remission.
Despite her suffering, Yolanda kept alive her dream of becoming a New York City police officer. She persevered because of her desire “to serve and protect,” and finally, at age twenty-four, she was selected to join the department. It was a personal triumph for her—but she never foresaw how God would choose to use her illness to accomplish something that nobody else could have done.
The drama unfolded one day when Yolanda was driving home on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn. Suddenly a man jumped from his car and clambered to the top of a bridge abutment that was two hundred feet above the water.
Yolanda slammed on her brakes and ran over, “What are you doing?” she shouted.
“Get away from me!” came the reply. “I’m going to jump! I’m going to kill myself!”
Yolanda had never faced anything like this before. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she just tried talking to him. He responded by cutting her off. “Look, get out of here” he shouted. “I know you don’t care about me!”
“Hey I’m off duty. I didn’t have to stop. I don’t have to be here. I don’t have to talk to you,” Yolanda said. “But I want to. I want to help.”
The man paused. “Well, then,” he said. “Come on up.”
Yolanda wasn’t fond of heights, and this abutment overlooked a twenty-story drop to the icy water below. But she only hesitated for a moment. Then Yolanda—who weighed all of ninety-nine pounds—climbed up. When she managed to get close enough to the man, she tried to talk him down again, but every time, he would turn hostile and threaten once more to jump.
“You don’t care about me!” he said. “Nobody does. My wife has left me; I’ve got all kinds of family problems. I’m going to end it all right now—“
He was poised to leap. Yolanda had only a split second to respond. But when she spoke, her words stopped him cold. “I know about problems,” she said softly.
The man was taken off guard. Again he paused. “What do you mean?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious. “How can a person like you know about problems?”
Yolanda told him, “I’ve got cancer.”
“Really? Where do you have cancer?”
Yolanda started describing her illness to him. She talked about her own fears and uncertainties. She spoke about the pain she had endured. And she explained how God had helped her cope with her circumstances.
“I got help,” she said. “Please—let me help you.”
Several tense moments passed. “Maybe I need a friend,” he said quietly.
Yolanda smiled. “Then I’ll be your friend.”
I don’t know if any psychiatrist could have talked that desperate man out of suicide. He was right on the edge of leaping into oblivion. But I know this: he connected with Yolanda because of the pain and problems she had gone through. God used her own pain to reach that man in the unique way that he needed to be helped.
In the end he climbed down with her and she accompanied him as he went to receive counseling and spiritual help. The following day the newspapers hailed Yolanda as a hero. But she would be the first to tell you that it was God who turned her illness—her liability—into an asset to save another life.
He does that all the time, usually in less spectacular ways. For those with physical or emotional scar, for those who have been beaten up by life or have endured relational wounds, God can open up opportunities to influence others who are going through a similar ordeal. And when he does that, it’s an inspiring sight to behold and a satisfying mission to fulfill.
TOWEL BEARERS FIND FULFILLMENT IN POINTING PEOPLE TOWARD CHRIST
Bill Perkins told me the story about a little British orphan staring longingly through the window of a donut shop right after World War II. The scent had his mouth watering, but he didn’t have any money. He was quietly praying for something good to eat.
An American soldier happened by “You want some?” he asked, gesturing toward the bakery. The boy nodded eagerly, so the American went inside, bought a dozen donuts, and silently handed the bag to the youngster.
The kid looked down at the bag, then up into the soldier’s face. “Mister,” he said with a voice of innocent wonder “are you God?”
In a way, towel bearers represent Christ to those they serve. “Let your light shine before men,” said Jesus, “that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”6
One of the more exhilarating thrills for a towel bearer is when their love for Jesus shines through their servanthood so much that somebody opens up to God for the first time. Then the towel bearer gets to watch the amazing spectacle of God revolutionizing another human life—to see their values transformed, their relationships renewed, their character overhauled, and their priorities rearranged.
Not long ago I had a chance to serve a friend who was going through some tough personal circumstances. I spent a week counseling him, and in the end he made the decision to follow Jesus. Now his life is beginning to change. In fact, here’s a note he wrote to me a few weeks later:
I’ve been reading the Bible every night. I’m nearly through Matthew. It’s an amazing book! The first time I read it, twenty-four years ago, it meant little to me. Now nearly every sentence has a profound message and impacts my life. I had never read the Psalms before. Their intensity is almost overwhelming.
I suspect there are going to be some extremely difficult times ahead, especially in the next few weeks and months. I’m trying to let Jesus guide me, rather than trying to handle it all by myself. I’ve found that when things get tough, the most comforting thing I can say is, “Jesus loves me.”
Just try to pry that note from me! Out of all the experiences I’ve ever had, nothing is more satisfying than having a front-row seat to watch Jesus revolutionize the life of another human being.
Some Christians, though, will never know the impact they’ve had until they reach heaven. Our church recently held a memorial service for a husband and wife killed in a car accident. They had been veteran servants in Willow Creeks tape ministry in which they reproduced tens of thousands of teaching tapes that went out to people around the world. They may never have met those people personally, but because those tapes carried the redemptive message of Christ, they will meet some of them in heaven.
And they’ll celebrate together for eternity.
TOWEL BEARERS FIND FULFILLMENT IN GOD’S PROMISE TO REWARD THEM
Imagine this: our omniscient God sees every act of service motivated by his love, every instance of giving to build his kingdom, every sacrifice in his name, and he solemnly promises to reward us in eternity. “God is not unjust,” says the writer of Hebrews. “He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”7
He even remembers our acts of kindness that we ourselves have [forgotten! Let me give you an example. Choose a day at random from the past. For instance, let’s suppose we were to rewind the tape of history to the last Saturday of April 1989. What were you doing on that day? Can you remember? Maybe you spent part of that day with a towel over your arm, serving people in the name of Christ, and you can’t even recall it. But God remembers.
In fact, let’s zero in on only one congregation—Willow Creek Community Church—because that’s the one I’m familiar with. As God looks back to that cool April day many years ago, what does he remember?
At 8:30 that morning, Kim Rasmussen, a leader in the junior high [ministry was impacting the lives of half a dozen eighth-grade girls while they volunteered to clean a park as a gesture of kindness to the community. And God remembers. He clearly recalls how Kim’s influence on a girl named Julie helped awaken her to God’s love.
At 10:15 a.m. that day, Dale Nusbaum and his five-year-old son Tyler were vacuuming and cleaning offices at the church, getting them ready for another week of ministry. Meanwhile, downstairs a corporate president named Jack Mains was meticulously cleaning windows in preparation for that evening’s church service for spiritual seekers. And God remembers.
Also that morning, a group of single adults was turning a dilapidated building in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood into a recreation center and oasis of safety for inner-city kids. The volunteer foreman, Bill Kolker, arrived early that day and watched some teenagers playing basketball in the partially completed facility. “I was in tears,” he said. “I receive my reward by seeing these kids.” And God remembers.
At 1:45 in the afternoon, Carolyn Schuldt was sitting next to the bed of Elaine Ducay, who was dying of cancer in a hospital near the church. Carolyn held her hand, whispered calming words of encouragement, prayed with her, and tried to be Jesus to her. And God remembers. As it turned out, Elaine never got to leave the hospital. But less than a month later she did go Home.
At 2:00 p.m., a Sunday school leader named Karen Smiskol was hosting a picnic next to the church pond for some fifth-grade girls, to let them know that they matter to God and they matter to her. “I like the joy of giving my friendship to them,” Karen said. And God remembers.
At 300 in the afternoon, Robert Green, who’s terribly afraid of heights, was precariously perched atop a ladder while he aimed lights for the upcoming service, so people could see the stage where the message of Christ would be explained. And God remembers.
At 3:30 p.m., Fred Turner was teaching a five-year-old boy named Chris how to fly a kite for the first time in his life. Chris was from a single-parent home, and Fred was giving his time as a sort of surrogate dad, playing baseball with Chris, hammering nails with him, and talking about Jesus to him. And God remembers.
At 3:45 in the afternoon, a distraught woman was sitting in the church’s food pantry. Her husband had just left her and their two children, and she was trembling from fear and frustration. A volunteer named Sue Blacker knelt down next to her and listened to her story. “You are really courageous,” Sue told her. “We’re glad we can help you through this and stand by you. You know you matter to God. It’s easy to forget that in your situation, but you do. You truly matter to God.” And he won’t forget that.
At 6:35 p.m., a twenty-seven-year-old chemist named Chris Scorzo—or “Mr. Chris,” as the kids call him—was in Sunday school helping eighty-seven children, ages four and five, understand that there is a God and that he loves them. The kids will never forget that, and neither will God.
SMOOTH OR CALLUSED HANDS?
Those are just a few examples from one day in one church in one community eight years ago. Acts of servanthood go on in churches and Christian ministries around the clock and around the world—and every single sacrificial moment is imprinted in God’s memory to be recalled someday when eternal rewards are given.
And the question is, What will he remember about you? Will he recall how you humbly picked up a towel, draped it over your arm, and stooped to serve others who were in need?
“Christian spirituality: is the spirituality of the Poor Man of Nazareth who took upon himself the form of a servant,” wrote Kenneth Leech. “To follow the way of the Kingdom is therefore to follow him who fed the hungry, healed the sick, befriended the outcast, and blessed the peacemakers.”8
Bill Hybels puts it this way: “I would never want to reach out someday with a soft, uncallused hand—a hand never dirtied by serving—and shake the nail-pierced hand of Jesus.”
With that sobering perspective, let me ask again, What will God remember about you? (89-101)
1. Matthew 20:28 (NIV)
2. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993). 491
3. John 13:15 (NIV)
4. D. James Kennedy. What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 36.
5. David Jeremiah, Acts of Love (Gresham, Ore.: Vision House, 1994), 102-4
6. Matthew 5:16 (NIV)
7. Hebrews 6:10 (NIV)
8. Kenneth Leech, True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), 73