Serving others. Community service. Volunteering. Donating our time. Giving back. Paying it forward. There are many ways to describe the act of giving of ourselves and our time for others’ benefit. Why do we do it? And what do we hope to get out of it?
This is a topic that’s weighed heavily on my mind lately. Volunteering is in vogue right now. Whether or not you have a full-time job that is primarily about serving others, it’s fashionable and in some cultures or churches even expected that you serve others even more than that, to the point that people neglect their own families and relationships to fulfill these expectations.
Central to my Christian faith is the idea of serving others. Jesus did it; so should we. It is in attending to the needs of other human beings and creatures that we model what Christ did for us. He didn’t stay in His little corner and hope everyone got their problems figured out on their own. He jumped in with both feet and asked, “how can I help you?” We are His hands and feet on this earth and are to continue in this way.
But, as is the tendency of us fragile and inherently self-absorbed human beings, we often expect certain rewards and recognition to come along with these supposedly selfless acts. In recent years I’ve become increasingly concerned about the number of awards ceremonies, dinners, Facebook pages with pictures of volunteers, and other means of recognizing those who give. Should volunteers be recognized? Absolutely! But sometimes the pomp that accompanies these celebrations threatens to exceed the glory that accompanied the original act. Are we going overboard?
Of particular concern to me is the growing practice of volunteers taking selfies and other photos of the great work they’re doing. Do I appreciate what they’ve accomplished? Very much. Do I want to see selfies of the same people over and over with those jaws-dropped, wide-open-mouth-see-my-tonsils smiles people only do when a camera’s around? No. It would be more humble to allow others to recognize us and not self-promote every time we do a good deed.
The Jewish carpenter from Nazareth talked about self-promotion in Luke 14:
“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Am I saying to never take a selfie when you’re donating your time or to keep cameras away? I’m not saying that. I’m asking others to consider how excessive amounts of that appear in the wrong forums. On your personal social media site or LinkedIn, where you’re trying to land a much-needed job, who cares. When you’re representing a nonprofit or other organization, consider how many, many photos of the same people, especially those who like to photograph themselves, might come across. Is that a group you really want to work with? Is it a clique or is it open to all?
Another issue I’ve been pondering about volunteering and giving of yourself is how people who don’t publicize their efforts can be treated as if they’re not doing enough. Some of the most magnificently giving people I know are those who will never, ever receive a public reward and most people outside of their orbit won’t ever know the amazing commitments they had. This is why a lot of the Hollywood-style awards shows just crack me up– is it really giving if the point is to laud the deeds of the “mighty” with all the glitz and glamour?
I see teachers, cops, nurses, firefighters, and others routinely recognized for their service to the community. That’s awesome. We need them, we appreciate them. I also know some very old people who’ve taken care of generation after generation of their families without much of a thought for themselves. How is their service any less? They will never have a certificate to frame for a lifetime of unfailing love but persist in putting family first and taking care of their own until the end. Likewise, Batman doesn’t attend an annual superhero awards ceremony. Most residents of Gotham will never know just how much he’s given to keep their world safe.
I know people whose jobs that seem more about profit than service, but they use those profits to make life better for others. There are also those whose jobs are just that, jobs, a means to pay the bills, and their personal lives are very focused on service, but those who think job titles are everything look down upon them. No matter what our paying job is, there are very valuable ways to serve through that and outside of that. Titles and degrees and professional qualifications don’t make us better givers; it’s about what we do with the time and resources we’ve been given.
In Christian circles, I’ve often heard how the “people who are really serving God” are those who are missionaries and ministers. Yes, those are challenging jobs that require a lot of sacrifice and many of them will have high stations in eternity. But God did not design all of us to be missionaries and ministers. We can serve God in a multitude of ways, and none of them should be considered less important than the others. We are different parts of the same body. I’ve seen some very selfish and even wicked people occupy these “higher”– meaning more visible– positions in the church and yet still be lauded as saints simply because of the position they hold.
Recently, when I suggested that someone become involve in an organization I enjoy, they scoffed as if the very notion was ridiculous. This was a good reminder to me that we might think someone else isn’t serving unless they’re serving the causes we support and on topics we like. Some are passionate about education, others history, others medicine, others clean water, others holding drug-addicted babies at the hospital, knitting hats for cancer patients, veterans, animals, music, native plants, wildlife, whales, or wombats. If you are a lawyer who volunteers your time to those who can’t afford legal services, are you better than the high school graduate who is passionate about preserving history? No. You’re not. We are have unique gifts and therefore we serve in unique ways. We all have a purpose. We all have a place.
Finally, I sometimes wonder if the people who get the biggest and most public awards for their countless hours of high profile volunteering have healthy home lives. I wonder if their children wish their parents were around more or if their spouse feels abandoned. I can’t judge, I know. I just puzzle over this, because while I’m a firm believer in supporting various causes, I feel that family should come first. And there are activities you can do as a family to help others.
In a similar vein, married people should not disparage singles for filling up their time with service rather than cruising bars to find a mate. One of the best ways to find a lasting relationship is to meet like-minded people through acts of service. If you care about the same things, you will do more together. The reverse is also true. Service-minded singles shouldn’t thumb their noses at those who serve God through caring for their family members.
Really, the bottom line in this train of thought is this question: are we serving for the right reasons? Are we doing it because:
1) It’s trendy
2) It’s expected
3) Everybody else is doing it
4) Other parents/friends/churchgoers/coworkers will look down on us if we don’t do it
5) We’ll get our picture in the paper/be able to make a t-shirt/*selfie!*
6) We have something to prove
7) We crave the attention that comes from it
Or are we doing it because:
1) We truly believe in the cause
2) We want to see others succeed
3) We want to live an authentic version of our faith
4) We are passionate about the topic
5) We want to advance the kingdom
6) We act out of love and genuine concern
7) We want to give back/pay it forward
Some would say, “Who cares what their motivation is! I’m just glad they’re volunteering.” They have a point. But to truly achieve joy through service I argue that the second set of motivations is infinitely more powerful and effective than the first.
God is keeping score. He knows our deeds. None of them are hidden from Him. So while sometimes we have to sell ourselves and what we’ve been involved in to land jobs or higher positions in organizations we volunteer for, we don’t have to be constantly crowing about what we do for others. There are also ways to promote the organization and mission without looking self-absorbed.
In the end, I guarantee we’ll find that some of the people who have given the most are the ones we never knew were giving at all. They were playing to an audience of One.
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