Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, once made the claim that “joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness”. Much of the current research into human resources management would bear this out (look, for example, at the work of Kevin Kruse or Daniel Pink). When all is said and done, people are at their most fulfilled and their most effective when they are serving a purpose larger than the individual life.
I believe that you will always be serving something or somebody – either (if you are self-aware and proactive enough) by your own choosing, or (by default) the agenda of somebody else. The degree to which you derive fulfilment from life, I think, directly correlates with the extent to which the values and goals of the master you serve resonate with your own. To use Stephen Covey’s terms, what is at your centre will control your security (your sense of identity and self-worth), your guidance (the internal map that governs your decision-making), your wisdom (your ability to judge and discern), and your power (your capacity to act). If you serve money, or status, or family, or country, or political party – any person or group of people, really – then your wisdom, guidance, wisdom and power will always be tied up in the vacillations of forces outside of your control. You will only be as powerful as they allow you to be, your value will be determined by how much others value you. That is no way to live.
As Joshua stood ready to cross into the Promised Land, he asked the Israelite people to choose whom they would serve:
But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24: 15)
I find this whole chapter a profoundly insightful passage. I do not believe that the choice being presented is ‘choose God or else’. It is not, I think, a threat. For me it is indicative of God’s recognition of our innate compulsion to serve. He would know: He created us that way. He realises that because He is the very author of life, and of our desire to serve, we can only find life and fulfilment when we elect to serve Him, because He is life and fulfilment. And the loving thing to do would be to urge us to choose what He knows will be best for us.
We will always find a master. If we do not, one will always find us. Somehow we always end up serving. There is nothing ignoble about serving a noble cause, but service of any person or any ideology that degrades us should be questioned. We will find joy and an inexplicable sense of liberation when we serve a Godly cause. If, on the other hand, we feel oppressed and constrained, and if our service in some way dehumanises us, maybe we ought to find a new master.
If you do happen to be Christian, and your service does not leave you with a deep sense of peace, I urge you to critically examine your picture of God. Too often, we find ourselves as servants not of the God who is, but of the God we think there is, the God we want there to be. They may have superficial similarities, but they are distinctly different beings. The one is completely mysterious, frustrating sometimes, and His ways beyond our comprehension. Often we just have to trust that the promises in the Scriptures are genuine, and that He does have our best interests at heart, even when the visible evidence does not – to our limited human understanding – suggest so. When we get that right, there is peace to be found in His service. The other – like all other man-made gods, really – magnifies our own fears, feeds our insecurities, makes us petty and intolerant, gives us an inflated sense of self-importance, distorts our decision-making and often leaves us feeling powerless.
Like the Israelite nation under Joshua, we often feel like we have wandered too long in the wilderness. We have grown weary and disconsolate. We cannot shake the nagging feeling that there has got to be more than this, and we are vaguely aware that the Promised Land awaits. I wish to echo the words of Joshua today: a life of service is inevitable. Even now, you have dedicated some fundamental part of yourself – and with it your security, your guidance, your wisdom and your power – to some or other cause. Consider carefully whom you will serve. You may not have an option but to serve, but you certainly have the power to choose the lord to whom you will give your allegiance. Will it be to the old gods of the land in which we find ourselves– fame, money, family, country, some or other ideology? There is nothing inherently wrong with those things. They are, in their own ways, good. But they are not good masters. There is seldom peace to be found in dedicating your life to them. You may choose them if you wish. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.