The Great Reward in Thankless Service

It’s Wednesday night. I’ve cooked dinner for the Bible study we host each week in our apartment. The meal is ready on time. As members arrive from their jobs around the city, they exclaim how “amazing” dinner smells, and it turns out to be tasty. The men help themselves to seconds, and the women again announce that it was “amazing.”

I think silently, I love to serve!

It’s Thursday night. I’ve cooked dinner for my husband and myself. I got a late start because I forgot to buy fresh garlic at the store and had to go back. I turn the oven up, hoping the meal will cook faster. The kitchen is hot, and I’m a bit sweaty, but we sit down to eat not too many minutes after I had planned. As I cut into my chicken breast, I see the sickening pink of an uncooked middle. I look over at my husband, who is silently cutting around the center of his chicken breast.

I start a passionate internal monologue of self-defense: He has no idea how much I do for us. He takes me for granted. Our oven is not reliable. I do too much for our church. The fact that our chicken is raw is not my fault!

These two scenarios encapsulate my love/hate relationship with serving. When serving makes me look good, it’s rewarding. When my service is deficient (e.g., raw chicken) I get angry and want to blame someone. When my service is overlooked, I feel resentful and unappreciated.

Serving the Master

Most of the Christians I know take for granted that serving others is a good thing. After all, Jesus said, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26). Moreover, in some relationships we have no choice but to serve others, as when caring for small children or aging parents. But it’s difficult to move from knowing you should serve to joyfully serving those who take you for granted.

It helps me to remember that, in terms of spiritual service, my only master is God. He has given me neighbors to serve for his sake. Pleasing other people is a good thing, but when I serve for their approval rather than God’s, I put them in the place of the Master and forget my true identity: a servant of God.

Serving for God’s Reward

There’s a reason why it’s so much harder to serve when people overlook our service or don’t appreciate it. God designed us to seek approval. He created us to desire a reward for all our hard work. When we try to psych ourselves up to live sacrificially without any hope of recognition, we aren’t thinking the way God thinks. The scriptural motive for service is the hope of blessing (John 13:12–17). Our problem is not that we seek reward, but that we expect it to come from the wrong people.

One of the best articulations of the biblical motive for serving others is addressed to actual servants in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col. 3:22–24)

Imagine you’re a first-century indentured servant. Day after day, you wash your mistress’s clothes in the river. You dry them in the sun to bleach the natural fibers. You hope she will notice the care you take to please her, but she never notices. In fact, she takes out her bad moods on you by mocking you and speaking harshly.

In this situation, you’re faced with a choice. You could stop trying so hard, since you’re never going to be appreciated. Or you could choose to do your best, because you know the Lord of all the earth will see your efforts and be pleased by them. You may discover ways to serve and benefit your mistress that she will never know. If so, you can take secret joy in your unrewarded excellence, because you know the Lord will repay you.

What sort of reward can we expect from our Master? We’ve already read in Colossians 3 that we will receive an inheritance. We will be God’s heirs. Furthermore, Jesus promises that those who serve him will be with him and honored by his Father: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:25–26). Isn’t honor what we crave when we serve? That’s how God designed us, but we look for that honor from people who can’t satisfactorily give it.

Jesus warned, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). Buried in this warning is the glorious news that in the life to come, our Father will celebrate good deeds that go unnoticed on earth. Looking forward to this promised reward helps us embrace our identity as servants—and heirs—of God.

Serving like Jesus

What might it look like to live out a transformed identity as a servant of God? To serve in the hope of honoring God rather than rising in the estimation of others?

  • It might look like washing the coffee pot at work, week after week, even though your coworkers have never noticed or wondered how it stays clean.
  • It might be cheerfully visiting a relative with Alzheimer’s even though she doesn’t recognize you and bitterly complains her family has forgotten her.
  • It might mean serving a store-bought dessert to dinner guests, even though no one was ever impressed by the ability to buy a dessert.
  • It might look like volunteering on the cleanup crew for a fundraiser even though you know the decorating crew is more fun and earns more recognition.
  • It might mean gladly agreeing to watch your neighbor’s child even though the last time you kept her, the child came down with a stomach virus, and your neighbor didn’t think it was a big deal or even seem appreciative.

Once we know we’re serving the Lord rather than men and women, we can stop worrying about whether we are under-appreciated. We can stop focusing on whether our efforts enhance our image and start concentrating on how we can best meet the needs of our neighbors.

What of those times when our service is warmly appreciated by those we serve? When your child tells you you’re the best mommy in the world, or your coworker sends an email of commendation to your supervisor after you’ve gone the extra mile on a project? We can’t live for these moments of being seen and appreciated, and we can’t count on them to fuel our service. But we can rejoice in the glimpse they offer of the joy God takes in our service.

Jesus gave up the glory of heaven to become the servant of men by saving us from our sins. He was despised and rejected by those he came to serve. Yet he loved us to the end, and he received his reward: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . .” (Phil. 2:9). Whether we are applauded or despised by those around us, we too can serve for the joy of our Master and enter into his great reward.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Betsy Howard’s chapter “Servant: Reaping a Reward” in TGC’s book Identity Theft: Reclaiming the Truth of Our Identity in Christ.

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