On servanthood and sovereignty

One of the better compliments I ever got was from a former pastor. We were at a conference, and they had been talking about having a “servant’s heart.” He said “A servant’s heart, hmm? That’s you.” At the time, I took it in the spirit it was intended, a compliment on my willingness to step outside my comfort zone and serve where I was needed.

I think it’s often difficult to discern the difference between someone who has a servant’s heart, and someone who just has a problem saying “No.” Even, maybe especially, when that person is you.

It’s also very easy to be taken advantage of, if you’re a person who’s default answer when someone asks for help is “Sure. What do you need?”

Then he said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life. – John 13:1-17 MSG

Jesus was pretty clear that serving others wasn’t optional if your intention was to follow Him. That said, giving isn’t optional either, but Jesus made a distinction between the widow’s humble, sacrificial offering and the prideful, self-serving gifts of the wealthy (Mark 12:41-44). Prayer isn’t optional, either, if we’re following His example. But He made a distinction between the loud public prayers of the self-righteous and the private prayers of the humble (Matthew 6:5-7).

So I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say similar distinctions can apply to gifts of service.

As a wife, mom and employee, I’m called on to serve others on a daily basis. I’m happy to do it most of the time. But there is a point where serving others isn’t actually helping them. In fact, there are situations where you are effectively crippling someone else by trying to do things for them that they should be doing for themselves. You’re keeping them weak, and making yourself strong. You’re bolstering your sense of importance, security and self-worth by making sure that nobody around you can function without you.

This is the same kind of self-serving “gift” that Jesus condemned. And I have been much too guilty of it in some areas of my life lately.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s excellent Boundaries books talk about how we are to help each other, and where that “helping” turns toxic, ranging from unhealthy to abusive. They provide the excellent metaphor of “boulders and knapsacks.”

Some issues in life are boulders. A death in the family or a crippling illness or injury are boulders that one person can’t be expected to shoulder alone. Walking alongside someone and helping them carry that burden is true service. But the normal demands of life as a responsible adult? Those are more like a knapsack. You’re supposed to carry your own knapsack. Sure, there are times when you need to set it down and rest.

But if you consistently carry someone else’s knapsack for them, or expect others to carry yours for you, that’s when things get unhealthy. They start believing they shouldn’t be expected to carry their own knapsack, because they’re so super special and awesome. Or they start to believe they can’t carry it on their own.

Cloud and Townsend also describe the idea of “sovereignty”–your area of personal responsibility. If you abdicate your sovereignty to someone else, or take over someone else’s sovereignty, it’s a bad thing for both of you. There are obvious exceptions: kids, who have to grow into their sovereignty, and people who genuinely can’t take full responsibility for themselves.

As a creative person who grew up in a culture that values utility over imagination, I too often lean into service as a means of bolstering my sense of self-worth. If doing helpful things is good, then the more things I do for others, the more I’m worth.

It can also be a really compelling form of Resistance. “I would work on my novel, but I have to do this laundry (that the kids could and should do).”  Our culture values commerce over homemaking, and both of those over creative expression.

So for a person who works full time and is a wife and mom, how difficult it can be to prioritize my creative work! And how easy it can be to make checking email or picking up around the house my excuse for not applying butt-to-chair and putting words-on-page!

As the circumstances in my life have brought these ideas to the fore, I’m going to be making some changes. I’m going to try to catch myself when my urge is to help someone because it secretly serves my own agendas. I’m going to try to be more aware when I’m tempted to grab someone else’s knapsack.

More importantly, I’m going to try to resist the urge to strive to be indispensable.  Being useful is a good thing. Being indispensable is a cheat code. It’s trying to barter for the incalculable value you have been freely given. It’s a Linus blanket that makes you feel like nobody can reject you because they need you.

If my 2014 is shaping up to have a theme, it’s “No more cheat codes.”

How about you? Do you find yourself tempted to make yourself not just useful, but necessary to others? How does that compulsion affect your creative work?


  1. ·

    Very well said.

    I have successfully conquered most of my procrastination issues, and for me, being helpful was one of them. I think saying goodbye to my latest unpaid writing commitment was a good example of that. Not that I was carrying their knapsack, per se…they will easily find others to fill the gap.

    I think my personal area of improvement when it comes to helping others is more in the realm of the personal: shielding my children from hurt. But I am taking that one day at a time. Letting go, letting them experience what they need, knowing they have a loving mom to come back to when things go squirrelly.


    1. Kat

      It’s ridiculously hard to balance protecting your kids with becoming a “helicopter parent” isn’t it? I wonder if maybe you letting go of that other service area is a good example of not letting the good become the enemy of the best.

  2. Joe

    Very well said Kat. The bummer is few catch that half of Christ’s message was serve. Love & SERVE. How awesome it is to see others struggling to serve more like He taught. Well done.

    1. Kat

      Thank you, Joe. I have a lot of room for improvement, but fortunately there is plenty of grace for my mistakes.

  3. Lorraine

    This struck me….will be mulling on it…hmmm



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