Happy are you if you have a Servant’s Heart by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “Be Still My Soul,” published in 2003.
The idea of leadership is very popular in Christian circles these days. People write books about leadership, Christian magazines feature articles about leadership, and flyers advertise special courses or conferences.
Sometimes I get invited to speak about leadership, but, truth be told, I am not very eager to talk about it. Usually, I warn the people who’ve asked me that yes, I can speak on that topic; however, my emphasis will be on servanthood, not on “effective” or “powerful” leadership. I tell them that because our Lord and Master Jesus was the Servant of all, I believe that a leader must be a servant first and always.
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees found this difficult to understand. They were men who appreciated public recognition and the exercise of power. They noticed that crowds of people were following this obscure rabbi and that His authority held much sway over the people. They became jealous of His popularity and influence. Little did they know that one of His leadership-training techniques was, of all things, foot-washing.
We know the story: Jesus the Teacher and Healer, took the position of the household servant who was lowest of all, stripped off His outer garments and wrapped a towel around His waist. Carrying a basin of water, He carefully washed the feet of each disciple, even Judas, whom He knew would soon betray Him into the hands of crucifiers, and Peter, whom He knew would later deny being His disciple.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me `Teacher’ and `Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (JOHN 13:12-17, NIV)
This is almost as difficult for us to grasp as it was for the Pharisees. The apostle Paul said that he was willing “to spend and to be spent for you” (2 Corinthians 12:15, KJV). Are we willing to do the same, to lay down our preferences, to sell all in order to buy the pearl of great price? Jesus said that if we are not prepared to get rid of all our possessions, we cannot be His disciples. He asks us (no exemptions for Americans) to sell all, to give up the right to ourselves, to forsake father, mother, family, possessions, home, and everything that we have, in order to be His disciples.
What does this look like?
As His servants, we lay down our desire for a certain quality of life, our insistence that our life must be arranged in a certain way in order to be acceptable. In a word, we deny ourselves. Making a radical departure from the ways of the world around us, we accept the fact that our preferences and our agendas will not be honored. After all, what are we but mere bondservants who have been bought with a price? As His servants, we pay attention to how we react to slights and hurts, because we realize that wherever we are being self-protective or irritated, we most likely do not yet possess a servant’s heart.
We also accept (with joy, because it represents a great spiritual liberation), the menial tasks that come our way, knowing that God is more interested in our response than He is in the tangible results. One day I noticed the footnote to Romans 12:16 in my NIV Bible: “‘Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.’ Note: ‘Be willing to do menial work.”‘ As servants, we are willing to do menial work; we don’t grouse about it. Christians are not TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) people nor are they Blue Monday people.
When I lived with the Auca Indians for two years, I learned more about servanthood than I had known from my Christian upbringing. The Auca men left the clearing every morning by six o’clock if it wasn’t absolutely pouring rain, and they didn’t return to the settlement until five or six o’clock in the late afternoon, having run or walked barefoot thirty miles or so looking for food. The women would go out to the fields as soon as they had taken care of the babies and fed the small children and had eaten whatever might be left over for them. At the end of the day, an Auca woman would come home carrying her fifty- or sixty-pound basket of manioc and plantains by a strap over her forehead, usually with a baby on her hip and a machete in the other hand, caked with sweat and mud from head to toe. She would walk into her house, stoop down to drop the basket behind her, and set to work stirring up the fire, cooking the food, very calmly and quietly doing the things that needed to be done before the family went to bed.
Sometimes far-away Westerners, who had little idea of the actual situation, commended me for my “wonderful work,” probably because they thought of it as difficult, isolated, dangerous, or even nobly sacrificial. There were others who for the very same reason condemned me, for I had had the audacity to take my three-year-old into that setting. Some envied me, some pitied me, some admired, some criticized. I could not help but ask myself if perhaps I had been mistaken to come. Was I really obeying God, or had I merely obeyed some misguided impulse, some lust for distinction, some masochistic urge to bury myself in that forsaken place? I became reconciled to my situation by watching the Indians, serving each other and me untroubled by the relative value of their work, free of the pressures of competition or comparison. There was for me here a lesson in simplicity and acceptance of one’s place in life, which, because I was a Christian, I could take from the hand of God. My duty was one thing, theirs another. My responsibility lay there for the time being. The responsibility of some of my correspondents who gazed starry-eyed at my role lay perhaps in an office or a kitchen or the cockpit of an airplane.
When I get to heaven, I want to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” not “good job, excellent and committed CEO.” In spite of the clamor of society around us, the urgings to succeed and conquer, I would rather emulate my fellow believers who have taken the narrow, lower way.
One of them, a seventeenth-century monk, has influenced generations of Christians through a slender volume called The Practice of the Presence of God. Born Nicholas Herman in French Lorraine, he became a Lay brother with the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites in Paris in 1666 and was known thereafter as “Brother Lawrence.” He was undistinguished in academic matters and ended up in the kitchen of the monastery, where he found that the most menial tasks could bring him nearer to heaven. He died when he was eighty years old, having become a bit of a legend in his own time for his cheerful servant’s heart, his love, and his willingness to choose the humble path.
If we ever get the idea that any job is beneath us, we’re off the path of Jesus. My second husband, Addison Leitch, was the dean of a college. One evening he was told that pranksters had slathered peanut butter and shaving cream all over the walls of a certain men’s dormitory. So he made his way over there and went down the halls knocking on doors, asking if anybody knew how the mess had gotten there. Nobody had a clue. “I had a couple of choices,” he said. “We had a wonderful janitor who would do anything for anybody, anytime. But I didn’t want to take advantage of that man at that hour of the night. I could either force the students to come out and clean it up themselves or I could call the janitor, which I had decided I wasn’t going to do. So I decided to do something different. I went and got a bucket and a brush, and started scrubbing the walls myself.” It wasn’t very long before heads began to pop out of the doors one by one and the guys saw their dean scrubbing down the walls. One after another, they located rags and began to help him. What a simple example of servanthood.
My own dormitory experience also helped me understand servanthood. My housemother at Wheaton College had come from a very wealthy home in Augusta, Georgia, one with “white columns in the front and many servants in the back.” Her family had disinherited her after she became a Christian. Like most Southern belles, she had been raised to be beautiful and to be a “lady.” There she was, single and with a good classical education but no particular skills. She certainly had never expected to have to make a living for herself.
Somehow, she made her way to Wheaton, and she and I became friends. In her wonderful Georgia accent, she called me “Baaeeddy” (Betty/, stringing the “e” into two or three syllables as only someone from Georgia can do. We used to walk to Sunday school together because she was my teacher.
One day she said to me (charmingly clasping her very ample bosom), “Oh, Baaeeddy, I came to Wheaton to be a spiritual counselor, but here I am carrying mops and toilet paper across the campus.” She was a spiritual counselor, of course, to me and to several hundred other girls. And the very fact that she was willing to carry the mops and toilet paper tremendously enhanced the effectiveness of her message as a spiritual counselor.
Years later, when she was living in a retirement home in Florida, my second husband, Add Leitch, and I visited her. Now somewhat smaller and gray-haired, she still had the wonderful smile. I reminded her of what it had meant to me for her to be willing to carry mops and toilet paper across the campus. Again in her charming accent, she exclaimed, “Oh, Baaeeddy! Just think of the mercy of God, that He allowed me to carry mops and toilet paper for His glory!”
Cooperation With God
There is no better example of servanthood than motherhood, because mothers are literally cooperating with God in His creative work of bringing another human being into this world. He needs a mother’s body in order to do that; He doesn’t create people in any other way. He requires the cooperation of one woman and one man to bring that child into being.
Cooperation with God entails self-effacement, self-denial, and all the rest. I have had the opportunity to speak at many women’s weekend retreats, where the hostesses go to tremendous effort to make everything perfect. In many of those places, it takes quite a chunk of time at the end to thank all those who have served. Sometimes I have wondered how many volunteers they might have gotten if the women were told in advance that there would not be any public recognition of their service.
I am reminded often of the humble heart and willing hands of Mrs. Kershaw, the elderly woman hired by my mother to “do for” our large family. The first time I ever saw her, I had come home from college for Christmas vacation. In her letters to me, Mother had been writing about this lovely lady who was now working for her. I walked into the kitchen, and here was this very humpbacked lady bent over the dishpan with her back to me. I exclaimed, “Oh, this must be Mrs. Kershaw, isn’t it!” She didn’t move a muscle. My sister was standing on the other side of the kitchen, and she said, “She’s deaf.”
I said, “You mean, she can’t hear you at all?”
“Not even if you shout?”
And Ginny shouted, “Not even if you shout!”
Still Mrs. Kershaw didn’t flinch, so I went over and tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned around, a radiant smile lighting up her face. “Oh, here’s the daughter!” (She always called me “the daughter.” My sister was “Ginny,” but I was “the daughter.”)
One day I came across a list of the things she had done during a typical day. My mother apparently had planned to go out for the day and had made a list of duties for Mrs. Kershaw, careful as usual not to overload her. Mrs. Kershaw had made her own counterpart list to report back to my mother. Between “Did dishes” and “Did ironing,” she had written “Rested, and had prayer for all.” This was repeated more than one time. “Swept floor,” “Made applesauce,” and “Rested, and had prayer for all.” And, somewhere in the middle, “Visited with Nana.”
One of the daily tasks that was uppermost in Mother’s mind was to keep her stepmother, who was confined to her room upstairs, company. We children were very remiss in the way we treated our step-grandmother, because she was a very gloomy person to be around. We didn’t like to go into her room.
Mother would encourage us to go visit her. “Please go in and talk to Nana.” We would always say, “What in the world are we supposed to talk about? She is not interested in anything.” But Mrs. Kershaw would go upstairs willingly to talk to her, whether it appeared on her list or not. Their conversations were worth overhearing, because not only was Mrs. Kershaw totally deaf, so was Nana. Whatever Mrs. Kershaw would say had nothing to do with what Nana would say. My grandmother hardly smiled at all, but Mrs. Kershaw never stopped smiling, bringing sunshine wherever she went, “resting and praying” for our whole family.
At His Service
Besides self-denial, self-effacement, and a willingness to cooperate with God, a true servant puts his or her gifts at the disposal of the Master. We tend to assume that God wants to use our highest-ranked gifts, but that may not be the case.
Once a former missionary came to me with a grievance. She had come back from the mission field to her home church and had told her pastor that she was available to serve in any way that she could. “Elisabeth, he asked me to take charge of the nursery! I explained to him that I have three degrees and that in all my fifteen years on the mission field I had not taken care of babies. I have other experience: teaching Bible classes, organizing a school. And he insisted that what he really needed was a nursery worker! I told him that I did not feel I could do that.”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Well, then he asked me to bake bread for communion. I don’t think he understood my qualifications.”
This lady was asking the wrong person for advice. I said, “I think you should go back to him and tell him that you’ll take charge of the nursery and you’ll bake the bread, too.” She was quite hurt.
I wonder how Jesus compares that attitude with, for instance, the attitude of Amy Carmichael, who would not ask anybody to take on a job that she herself was not willing to do. When there was a cholera epidemic in the village of Dohnavur, Amy gathered up her pail of disinfectant and her rags and went down into the little village huts where nobody else would go, not even the doctors. She scrubbed and she saved lives. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:16-17, KJV). There is great happiness in having a servant’s heart.
This was the same woman who had had a very effective ministry as an itinerant evangelist for the first seven or eight years she was in India. She had a small band of godly Indian women who traveled with her by bullock cart, bumping along rutted roads from one remote village to another, reaching out to Hindu women who were sequestered in the inner courts of their homes. In the opinion of the Indians as well as Amy’s European supporters, this was true “spiritual work.”
Then came the day when a little girl appeared on her veranda as she was having her morning tea, having escaped (only God knows how) from the captivity of being a child prostitute in the Hindu temple. Appalled at the practices of the temples and the conditions under which small children were raised, Amy began to take them into her own compound. This meant, according to the Indian Tamil proverb which says, “children tie the mother’s feet,” that Amy could no longer be an itinerant evangelist. Her gifts were “on the shelf” and she found herself doing the last thing she would have imagined when she came to India, mixing formula and changing diapers and finding workers to help her. She once said, “I must have cut tens of thousands of tiny toenails and fingernails!”
And inasmuch as Amy did it to one of the least of those babies, she did it for Jesus Himself. (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” Matthew 25:40.) Some of the women who had been part of the itinerant evangelistic band had come from high-caste Indian homes, and the daily duties of orphanage work were anathema to them. The spiritual work of traveling from village to village was one thing, but changing diapers and wiping little runny noses was quite another. (Even into the 1980s, 98 percent of the nurses in India were Christians, because Hindus would not do that kind of work). So Amy, who had been raised in a very wealthy home in Ireland, showed them what servanthood is like and gradually taught them how “the servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:16). In part because of her willingness to lay down her gifts, she became a true leader, and to this day we see the fruits of her ministry for the kingdom of God.
It’s a tall order to take the lowest place, to lay it all at His feet, and to listen for His next small wish. Yoked with Him, we can do this as easily as we can conquer more exalted worlds. [97-110]