Service invariably involves disruption, discomfort, dissatisfaction. You are “serving” when you’re doing something that nothing in your life requires you to do, but something in someone else’s life requires that it be done, and they can’t do it by or for themselves.
How’s that for a calculation, huh? I’m reminded of the scene in The Break-Up where the dinner party is over, but the dishes are still there. Vince Vaughan wants to chill; Jennifer Aniston wants him to help.
VAUGHAN: Fine, I’ll do the dishes.
ANISTON: No, that’s not what I want.
VAUGHAN: You just said you want me to help do the dishes.
ANISTON: I want you to want to help do the dishes.
VAUGHAN: Why would anyone want to do dishes?!?
Why would anyone want to do dishes? Those dishes, by the way, are his; he ate off them that night, and he’s going to need them for his Fruit Loops tomorrow morning. Imagine now being Vince Vaughan’s next door neighbor, and asking him to walk your dog and scoop its poop while you’re out of town. Why would anyone want to scoop poop? The further removed an act of service is from our self-interest, the more it sucks.
Service sucks. It sucks time out of your life. It sucks comfort out of your time. It sucks energy out of your imagination. Part of you—no matter how small—will enter into any time of service with a nagging thought about what else could be occupying your time.
And yet service is the heart of the golden rule, which Jesus imports into his teaching from the Levitical law:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
My aunt sent me this poster recently that shows how all the world’s religions include some variation on this golden rule that Jesus preaches. Service is the heart of the golden rule, which is the heart of the intended order of the universe. This world thrives on interdependence, which means that it depends on all of us helping each other out. To serve is to love, because love in a material world is made manifest in service.
Here’s the thing though. The intended order of the universe is that all of us help each other out, and that extends well beyond doing our girlfriend’s dishes or scooping our neighbor dog’s poop or listening to our crazy grandfather’s long-winded story about sock hops for the fifty millionth time. Jesus puts this frustratingly clearly: “Love your enemies.” He even mocks the logic of loving only your loved ones: “Do not even pagans do that?”
No, the intended order of the universe is that we love everyone—even, and perhaps especially, our enemies—the way we wish to be loved. And that sucks.
This kind of sucky, enemy-loving service is at the core of the story of Jonah. God, who ordered the universe, intends for Jonah to serve the Ninevites, whom Jonah hates, by telling them the truth about their wickedness and showing them the way to reconciliation with God. Here’s what Nahum, another minor prophet in the Old Testament, had to say about Nineveh:
“city of blood
full of lies,
full of plunder,
never without victims! . . .
who has not felt your endless cruelty?”
Whatever Nineveh is, it is not Jonah’s friend. And yet God calls on Jonah to love Nineveh, to go and serve Nineveh in this most material way. And Jonah turns tail and runs, because this call from God sucks.
And yet what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if it were not Nineveh but Israel, not the pagan people of Assyria but the covenant people of God, who had allowed themselves to become consumed with blood and lies and plunder and victimization and cruelty? What if Jonah were not the victim but the victimizer? What if God called on someone to save Jonah from himself? What would Jonah want then?
What would we want? It’s a fundamental precept of Christianity that we are victims of our own making, that it’s the sin of the world, compounding itself, propagating itself, cultivating itself in each and every human heart, that leads inevitably to this place where we desperately need rescue, where creation itself groans under the weight of our wrongdoing. You and I, we’re like Jonah in that we don’t like what we see around us, and we don’t want to associate ourselves with what we don’t like. But you and I are also like these Ninevites, who God tells us cannot tell their right hand from their left.
The notion that God might love the Ninevites is shocking to Jonah, as shocking as the command that Jonah himself go and love the Ninevites. But it should be no less shocking that God loves Jonah, that God loves us. And so this love, which God wove into us at the creation, which God weaves into the order of the universe, is the way of life that we are called to, the vision for how we—friends and enemies, loved ones and those who are difficult to love—are meant to live.
Love in a material world such as ours means service, and service is a habit we must be trained into. If we can love our friends, love strangers and even enemies, then we find ourselves walking in step with the God who created us out of love, who created us for love, who himself loved us supremely through a service that sucked the life out of him. Service may suck in all kinds of ways, but it’s what we were made for, and ultimately, we’ll find, it’s what makes life worth living.