Today I want to throw out a question that’s been stirring around in my mind for a long time: Is every kind of service good service? I know that may sound weird, especially since service has become such a huge buzzword in the church today. We hear countless Conference talks and Sunday lessons encouraging us to serve, serve, serve. The President Monson quote above seems to sum it up perfectly. So you may wonder how I could even ask such a question. But if you’ll just humor me for a minute, I think there’s something more that can be said on the subject—and I’ll admit it’s something that drastically changed the way I view gospel service.
You see, in earlier years, I thought that any service was worth my time and effort. That I needed to drop everything if an opportunity to help arose. That there could never really be a wrong reason to serve one of Father in heaven’s children. But I don’t believe that anymore. What changed my mind is something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I believe His words should give us pause when it comes to how, when, and why we choose to serve. Here’s the part I specifically want to focus on:
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in they name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matt. 7:21-23).
The first thing that struck me was verse 22. Here we have people who are not just doing “many wonderful works” . . . they’re doing them in the Lord’s name. According to the verse, they’ve been busy casting out devils and prophesying and trying to do all they could to serve the cause of Christ. But incredibly, Jesus tells them to depart. Then, almost as if to rub salt in their wound, he goes so far as to call their work iniquity. That’s pretty mind-blowing if you ask me. These certainly don’t seem like wicked people. They aren’t lying or cheating or fighting or murdering or committing whoredoms. So why is Jesus so harsh in His assessment of them? He doesn’t even say, “At least you tried” or “I appreciate your efforts.” No, He straight up casts them out. Gives them no credit at all for all their good works and ambitious efforts. Dismisses them without a second thought. Have you ever wondered what’s going on in this particular scripture?
Thankfully, the answer is right back in the very same verse. Jesus’ reason for telling them to depart is simple: “I never knew you.” In other words, there was never any relationship between these people and their supposed Master. Even though they had a long To-Do list of “wonderful works,” they had no connection at all to the One they said they were serving.
To me, it’s almost like Jesus was saying, “I know you’ve been crazy busy doing all kinds of seemingly righteous things in My name. But the truth is that you never came to Me to ask what I wanted you to do. To see how I wanted you to serve. You were serving based on your own agenda, which means you’re not My servants at all. And for that reason, you have no place in My kingdom.” It’s a pretty startling point that left me wondering if such a thing could ever apply to my own efforts to serve.
Years ago, I came across this quote from Christian author Oswald Chambers (who I believe is right up there with C.S. Lewis in terms of profound gospel insights). Listen to his perceptive take on the way we often approach our gospel service:
“So much Christian work today . . . simply come[s] into being by impulse! In our Lord’s life every project was disciplined to the will of His Father. There was never the slightest tendency to follow the impulse of His own will. . . . Then compare this with what we do—we take every thought and project that comes to us by impulse and jump into action immediately, instead of . . . disciplining ourselves to obey Christ. . . . It is inconceivable, but true nonetheless, that saints . . . are simply doing work for God that has been instigated by their own human nature” (My Utmost for His Highest, 9/9).
Chambers’ thoughts have caused me some pretty serious self-reflection. I’ve asked myself: is any of my service fueled, not by inspiration, but by impulse? For instance, am I planning that activity, not because the Lord has prompted me to, but because I saw a really cute idea on Pinterest? Am I serving so others will notice me? So I’ll gain recognition and be seen as a “righteous” person? Am I doing it out of guilt? Or because I think that’s what good Mormons are supposed to do? I’ll confess that at times I found less-than-impressive motives lurking beneath the surface of my gospel service.
It reminds me of the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, they were constantly serving, but they were doing it for all the wrong reasons. It just goes to show that we really can’t assume all service is good service. What the Lord seems to value is that we take our cues from Him when we serve, rather than jumping into service that, as Chambers says, has simply been “instigated by [our] own human nature.”
I know some may think—wait a minute, what about the Lord’s injunction that we “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will” (D&C 58:27)? While I certainly see the point, I don’t believe for a minute that the Lord is implying here that we should go off on our own and work independently of Him. Two verses previous, He’d already pointed out the importance of counseling with Him in the many different details of our lives. I believe like Alma that the right course is for us to, “Counsel with the Lord in all [our] doings, and He will direct [us] for good” (Alma 37:37).