By Peter Law

The Challenge of Serving Others

Serving others who are different than you can be a challenge. When serving people who are like us, our shared expectations usually make things friction free. When we set out to serve the “other” the one with whom we don’t naturally identify, things can be a bit rocky. I learned this while on a trip to India.

While visiting a poor area in Varanasi, we participated in a feeding program. We gave out small bags of food to the people we encountered. Conditioned by years of watching television ads where people politely sit in lines while Western aid workers give them a dollop of rice, I expected the recipients of our aid to be polite and orderly. Rather, when we showed up, it was like a feeding frenzy. Everyone grabbed at everything in order to get something before it was all gone. We even had a very distinctive looking gentleman argue with us that we hadn’t given him a bag, when we were positive we had. After a protracted argument, we gave him another bag just to end the conflict. A few minutes later, he showed up claiming he hadn’t gotten anything. This interaction in particular offended my sense of propriety.

Examining My Outrage

But should it have been such a surprise? Should I be shocked when people in desperate situations behave like, well, people in desperate situations. This man lied to us, knew he had lied to us and knew that we knew he had lied to us, but if he felt his life depended on getting a little extra food, then he had a motivation that I don’t understand. I’ve never known such disparate living. On top of all of this, we were foreigners with our own (foreign) culture judging people by a standard they neither knew nor should have accepted. Why should they behave according to our standard? this was their space.

Serving others who are on the margins here can reflect some of the same tensions. I’ve given out food intending that people to share, only to have people gorge themselves and left nothing for others. ‘How dare they?!’ we might ask ourselves. Yet, we have forgotten their situations are far more precarious than our own. In addition, in creating a space for them to be safe, we have effectively come into their space. Any outrage we feel over others not living up to our expectations is misplaced. Like the people I served in India, it’s improper for me to hold my own expectations over them, especially as a means of determining who should be served and who should not.

Serving Others Like God Does

The incarnation shows that this is not how God operates. Paul says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). God’s love is not dependent on my meeting his standards for how someone he loves ought to behave. He loves because it is his nature to love and his service to us is a natural consequence of that love. In the same way, when others withhold gratitude for service, when they seem demanding, when they don’t live up to my standards of propriety, I must always remember that I have done the same to God. He chooses to love me anyway. His love is an expression of who he is, not of what I deserve.

We are called to be his hands and feet in the world. We must be a demonstration of who he is to a world of people who have never seen him.  To do this, our love for and service to the other must reflect God’s unconditional love and service. We love and serve others not because it’s easy or because by their actions they deserve it. We love and serve others because God first loved and served us, and through our faithful love and service God loves and serves them.