If you want to follow Jesus, you have to be a people pleaser

One of the most helpful books written about relationships in the last couple of decades is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The author’s argument is that we all have one of five ways in which we prefer to give and receive love. The five he lists are: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch. Knowing your own particular love language and knowing your spouse’s love language enables you both to relate to each other in a way that is mutually encouraging.

Although Chapman’s book was addressed specifically to married couples, his advice can be applied to relationships generally. What creates connection with one person is not the same as what creates connection with another. For some a word of encouragement or affirmation is priceless. For someone else, practical help creates the connection. A gift given or received unlocks joy in some – perhaps many! -people. For others it’s quality time. And of course, some people value a hug more than anything else.

In Romans 15.2, Paul says: “Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up.” Paul reinforces his exhortation in the following verse by citing the example of Jesus: Jesus didn’t please Himself, far from it.

For some strange reason in the church, we have often been left with a kind of “just do the right thing” notion or even “I have to love you but I don’t have to like you” kind of approach to relationships. This verse in Romans could not be further away from that kind of soulless thinking.

Paul is urging the Christians in the church at Rome to aim for something a bit more meaningful, a deeper connection. The word translated “please” carries the idea of an emotional connection. People who are pleased with something have had their heart touched. It’s the language of emotion.

Paul goes further and says that there is a purpose to pleasing them: it’s for their good and to build them up.

The question is what is going to create that kind of connection? That’s where Chapman’s five love languages might be of help. If you know a person well enough to know how to unlock their heart, then you are two thirds the way to a powerful connection. And that is what builds people up.

If you want to follow Jesus, you have to be a people pleaser. I know that taken without qualification that statement is untrue. However, if we have no desire to unlock people’s hearts we can forget about trying to turn people into disciples of Jesus. On the other hand, if we are prepared to learn how to please people in a way that builds them up, we might just find that we become agents of transformation where God has placed us.

 

It’s powerful, it works – but it’s not that prevalent

Business and leadership thinkers attribute the term and the concept of servant leadership to Robert K. Greenleaf. Some of the more historically informed will point out that Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher of the 7th century B.C., was espousing similar principles in his day.

There is no doubting the esteem in which leadership thinkers hold the concept of servant leadership. They recognise that it is an incredibly powerful approach to leadership and the positive effect it has on those who come under its influence. However, as an article in Forbes magazine pointed out, powerful though it is, it is not that prevalent.

Anyone who has read the Bible will realise that the concept of servant leadership predates Robert Greenleaf and Lao Tzu. We find the God – yes, the much maligned God of the Old Testament – revealing Himself as Israel’s helper, a term that was used first of all to describe the kind of companion God sought for Adam. In fact in those early chapters of Genesis we see God revealing Himself as a servant leader in the way He sets Adam and Eve up for success and progress in the Garden of Eden. In short, He uses His unlimited power to empower them.

Little wonder, therefore, that when the Son of God becomes son of man He describes Himself in terms of a servant. What is unusual, even breathtaking, is the extent to which He emphasises His servant like nature, both in words and in actions. And, in case anyone was in any doubt, just before His crucifixion, He took a towel and basin of water and performed the ultimate menial task, namely washing His disciples’ feet. He did not do this simply to impress His disciples with His humility, He did it, the Bible explains, firstly to show them the full extent of His love and secondly to provide an example of how they should relate to each other. He provides His followers with a towel instead of a title.

So why is it that servant leadership is not that prevalent? Why is it that even in the church the servant hearted spirit of Christ’s followers is sometimes not that much in evidence? How can we become effective servants of both the Lord and each other?

Firstly, servant leadership and serving in general is counterintuitive. The world system, whatever culture you look at, seldom if ever, equates influence with the kind of virtues associated with servanthood. Can you imagine any prospective prime minister or president being questioned about how they had developed patience or love or humility? It’s hard to imagine gentleness or kindness as qualities one would seek in future political leaders in any kind of political set up. Yet those qualities are exactly what we find in Jesus.

Secondly, servant leadership requires a deep level of security in who we are in Christ. John’s gospel explains in the verses before the description of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, that Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist (John 13.3-4). Jesus did not serve in spite of the fact that He was the Son of God, but because He was the Son of God. The more we discover who we are, the more serving should become a natural expression.

Thirdly, we need conviction about the impact of servanthood. Towels just don’t seem to make the same impression as titles!

One follower of Jesus who laid hold of the towel and served with distinction was Stephen, the first martyr in the Christian church. In Acts 6 he is chosen to help deliver bread to the church’s widows. His practical service opens doors for supernatural ministry and preaching the gospel. The impact of his service extends even into the manner of his death, as the future apostle Paul stands watching as Stephen lays down his life for Jesus. Serving has the power to change people’s worlds.

Finally, serving is simply a matter of following the example of Christ. Here’s what Jesus said after He’d washed His disciples’ 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 13.15-17, The Message).

No other reason is needed. Jesus says do it. Do it – and live a blessed life.

It’s not about the coffee

Jim Behar, an executive at Starbucks for many years, wrote up an account of his time with the company and outlined the kind of corporate culture he had helped to develop. His book was entitled It’s Not About The Coffee, with the subtitle Lessons On Putting People First From A Life At Starbucks.

His central claim was that Starbucks was all about people, putting people first and serving them coffee, summed up neatly in the phrase “We’re in the people business serving coffee, not in the coffee business serving people.

It’s quite a claim to make, given that Starbucks is a billion dollar corporation. Can you make that kind of money and really put people first? Is it really not about the coffee?

Whatever you think of Behar’s – and Starbucks’ – insistence that they are more focused on people than coffee, it does indicate that there is something more to the whole experience of serving and being served than simply the delivery of a product.

That is certainly the case when you look at what the Bible says about serving and servanthood. There is far more to serving than just the delivery of a service or getting a job done.

In the Old Testament, God is referred to as Israel’s help on more than one occasion (e.g., Deuteronomy 33.29; Psalms 33.20,70.5, 124.8). The word translated help or helper, is the same as the one used by God Himself when He created Eve as a helper for Adam (Genesis 2.18). This is quite a statement. Just as Eve came alongside Adam to help him steward a perfect world created by God, so God would come alongside His people to help their progress in an imperfect and dangerous world. That is quite a revelation of the nature and character of God; He is a helper.

When we turn over to the New Testament, we find this particular aspect of God’s nature manifested and magnified in the person of Christ. Jesus is explicit about who He is and what He came to do: “The Son of man did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10.45). He sets it out very clearly again in Luke 22.27 “I am among you as one who serves”. Years later, reflecting on Christ’s journey to earth in the incarnation, Paul says that He was made in human likeness and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2.7). The journey from heaven to earth was a journey into servanthood for the Son of God.

Taking into account the context in which these statements are made about the nature of Christ, you will soon find that they were not intended merely to make a theological point – even though they do. The intention of Jesus and Paul was to set before the eyes of the original disciples and those in Philippi, who in later decades began to follow Jesus, a model of servanthood for them to imitate.

Serving is not just about helping out or making sure a need is met. When you serve, especially in the context of church, you connect to something deep in the heart of God. You somehow sync with His nature. You mediate the heart and life of Jesus to people around you.

Wherever you serve, whenever you serve, you are doing more than just meeting a need or getting a job done. You are revealing the heart of God.

Serving – it’s not just about the coffee. It about much, much more.

Don’t stop at chapter 37

Helen Fielding’s fictional character, Bridget Jones, has become famous in her own right through books bearing her name and through film adaptations starring Renee Zellweger, and the man best remembered as Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth. Sir David Jason, is also famous in his own right, think Open All Hours,Only Fools and Horses and Frost.

However, you would really have a creative imagination to bring Bridget and Del boy together either in a novel or on screen. It just would not work.

You might have been just a little surprised then, if you had purchased an early edition of Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy – and let’s be clear, I didn’t – to find that at one point the book switches from the story of Bridget’s latest dilemma to the autobiography of the man who turned the Reliant Robin into an icon. No, it wasn’t the result of artistic collaboration between Helen Fielding and Sir David; a mix up by the publishers had produced the most unlikely literary hybrid in living memory. It was all a huge mistake.

There are some parts of the Bible that can sometimes feel a bit like the mix up at Fielding’s and Jason’s publishers.

Take, for instance, Genesis 36-37. In Genesis 36, we have the genealogy of Esau and his descendants. In truth, it’s one of those chapters that you read because it’s in the Bible, but not one that you would be likely to turn to for spiritual comfort or encouragement. It maps out the descendants of Esau. Perhaps rather surprisingly, the narrative is, on the surface, quite positive. Surprisingly, because Esau is not the one who has inherited the blessing. The development of Esau’s family seems to be one of almost unbroken progress. There is little indication of pain or tension, though no doubt there was, as they were all human beings.

Turn over to Genesis 37 and you read about how Jacob’s family is getting on, the family who are right at the centre of God’s purpose. What you are left with is the picture of a family tearing itself apart. Jacob’s favouritism of Joseph produces resentment amongst the rest of his sons. When the opportunity arises to “fix” Joseph, they take it. They tear his ornate robe from his back. They sell him into slavery. When Reuben finds out, he tears his clothes. When Jacob finds out, he tears his clothes. They are not only tearing their clothes apart, this is a family tearing itself apart.

You might wonder how two vastly different stories could sit side by side and more puzzling still, why is the family that is supposed to be blessed by God the one that is in such an unholy mess? The short answer is, we don’t know! We aren’t told. But the two stories are a powerful reminder that grace is not conditioned by the human condition. Grace is not restricted by human recklessness. Grace is not edged out by human ego.

Peter talks about the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4.10). The dictionary definition of manifold is many and varied forms. The story of Jacob’s family reminds us that grace is just that – manifold.

Grace was bigger than their poor decisions. No-one – no-one – in Jacob’s family acted with any kind of wisdom, discretion or integrity. Jacob must have known what favouritism would produce, since his mother’s favouritism had fuelled the tensions between him and Esau. Joseph, behaved like a big headed, spoilt brat. And the brothers, well, the brothers.

But grace was still at work. Grace is bigger than our poor decisions.

Grace was bigger than their present situation. One day Joseph would be premier of Egypt. That’s grace. Grace is bigger than our present situation.

Grace is bigger than our personal struggles. Joseph was forced into a journey into the unknown. He needed grace. Reuben, racked with guilt, needed grace. Jacob in his loss needed grace. Who could have predicted how grace would meet their need? We all need grace in some way or other. Who can predict how God’s grace will meet our need?

If Genesis ended at chapter 37, then the whole thing would be more than a bit of a puzzle. Twenty-three chapters later, all becomes clear. No-one reading Genesis would stop at chapter 37. Chapter 37 is way too soon to stop. God’s grace doesn’t stop in chapter 37 of your life either. There’s a lot more chapters that grace wants to write.