(The following is the next entry in a 31-day blog journey through John Piper’s, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry [Broadman and Holman, 2002.])
God wills not to be served: “The God who made the world and everything in it… [is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). Paul warns against any view of God which makes Him the beneficiary of our obedience. He informs us that God cannot be served in any way that implies we are meeting his needs. It would be as though a stream should try to fill a spring that feeds it. “He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything….”
What is God looking for in the world? Assistants? No. The gospel is not a help-wanted ad. It is a help-available ad. Nor is the call to Christian service a help-wanted ad. God is not looking for people to work for Him but people who let Him work mightily in and through them: “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chron. 16:9). God is not a scout looking for the first draft choices to help His team win. He is an unstoppable fullback ready to take the ball and run touchdowns for anyone who trusts him to win the game….
The difference between Uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that Uncle Sam won’t enlist you in his service unless you are healthy and Jesus Christ won’t enlist you unless you are sick… Christianity is fundamentally convalescence. Patients do not serve their physicians. They trust them for good prescriptions.” (40, 41).
I am a servant of God. All shepherds of the flock of God are servants of God. Yet God “wills not to be served.” That is, service on behalf of Christ toward the people of God and the lost that is done with any hint that God is dependent upon any one of us is wrongly motivated and Gospel-denying service. We serve a God who can take non-living rocks and make them into living creatures who can skip rope, play catch, and cozy up to grandparents with long Christmas wish lists (Lk. 3:8). He is not short of finding servants; the Gospel will not fail to run its course if any one of us does not serve.
As previously explained in the consideration of the “debtor’s ethic,” feeling a sense that we can or must somehow pay back to God anything brings with it the danger of a bartering-theology. Equally true is that the professional shepherd’s “Beggar’s ethic” – that somehow God is in need of our service – brings with it the danger of a theology of indispensability: We are absolutely necessary to the kingdom in our pastoral (or lay) positions. (“Well of course we are, Eric, for we have degrees and large memberships that verify how important and needed we are!”)
The truth is that each one of us is utterly disposable. God is dependant upon my service even less than I am dependent upon a paper cup for water when I have cabinets full of plastic, ceramic, and glass drinking vessels. In fact, he is far less dependant upon my service than I would be dependant upon the last and only (clean) paper cup available to hold water for me after four days without water and a body temperature of 103 degrees when there are no other drinking vessels at hand. The Lord could crumple the cup, toss it away, and never be thirsty of servants to preach the Gospel, for the nearest pebble would do just fine. Our service does not merit or fulfill. As Piper portrays by his metaphors, God is not a store manager eager for replacement workers to save his business, nor a professional sports scout desperate for a Heisman-contending draft choice to carry a team to the playoffs, nor a recruiter looking for a few good men – or men who can be all that they can be – in order to make the world’s best military (for all we can be is “unworthy servants who have only done what is our duty” [Lk. 17:10]), nor a doctor looking for the patient to help in the patient’s recovery process after medical science has come to its limits. God is not in need; we are. God is the all-sufficient God. He does not need anything; instead he gives everything.
As non-professionals we must take all care to communicate to our people that we are not doing God any favors with our service. Each one of us as shepherds, and every vocational and lay leader we serve, must think of himself as a paper plate or fork or napkin in service for God – for temporary use, but not necessary use. We should keep a rock on our desk to remind ourselves that it is “not I, but grace.”