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Selflessness and Servanthood Reflect a Grateful, Grace-filled Heart

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Note: I have written a book on the Israel–Hamas war, which we are releasing as a free digital download today. I invite you to get your copy here.

As you know, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter died Sunday afternoon at the age of ninety-six. Former President Jimmy Carter said, “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.”

A tireless advocate for mental health services, Mrs. Carter was instrumental in passing the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 and continued her work on this vital cause for decades after. In 1982, she and her husband founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit dedicated to a range of issues, from improving global health to monitoring democratic elections to negotiating peace agreements. She could often be found volunteering with Habitat for Humanity along with her husband in building homes for those in need.

In a day when many leaders use their public platforms for personal celebrity, Rosalynn Carter used hers to serve others.

“A kind of private barn of money”

According to Guido Alfani, an economic history professor at Bocconi University in Milan, the wealthiest members of society have often in Western history been expected to use their riches “to support their societies in times of crises like plagues, famines, or wars.” For example, the Tuscan humanist Poggio Bracciolini wrote in 1428 that “many greedy individuals” should “constitute a kind of private barn of money able to be of assistance to everybody.”

Those who gave charitably were not entirely altruistic, however. Alfani notes that they wanted to allay the unfavorable way they were viewed by others and also saw such charity as contributing to “the benefit of their souls.”

Such transactional benevolence is rooted in fallen human nature. For example, after Jesus announced his intention to go to Jerusalem where he would “be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21), Peter “began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you Lord! This shall never happen to you’” (v. 22). Jesus responded: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 23).

Why did Jesus say this to Peter?

The apostle wanted Jesus to be a military messiah who would overthrow the hated Romans, not a suffering servant who would die on the cross. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and the other disciples asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They wanted him to do what they wanted, using him as a means to their ends. In this way, Peter was “setting his mind” not on the “things of God” but on “the things of man.” He was serving Jesus so Jesus would serve him.

This is what fuels Hamas in its drive to eradicate Israel, so its Mahdi (a messianic figure) will return to rule the world for Muslims, including themselves. It fuels Christian nationalists who want God to bless America for the advancement of their communities and aspirations.

I say all of that to say this: an excellent test of character is to see how sacrificially we serve others when such service does not benefit us personally.

The paradoxical problem with our focus on evangelism

Jesus is Exhibit A of such character. He testified that he “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45a). Then he proved it when he “[gave] his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45b). This fact highlights a foundational reason for Thanksgiving this holiday week: expressing gratitude to Christ for his selfless, sacrificial love.

A practical way we can thank Jesus for his grace is by sharing that grace with others. After washing his disciples’ feet, he called them to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). We demonstrate our love for our Lord by our love for our neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39). The best way you can serve me is to serve my family.

Here’s the problem: we evangelicals tend to focus more on experiencing grace in salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9) than on God’s call to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, my emphasis). Paradoxically, this omission limits our evangelistic effectiveness since we need such intimacy with Christ that his Spirit transforms us into his character (Romans 8:29) and manifests his grace to others (Galatians 5:22–23).

Exhibiting such character is vital if we are to reach our skeptical, post-Christian culture with the good news of God’s love.

The “three worlds of evangelicalism”

Aaron Renn was a partner at Accenture and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research before turning to a career as a writer on cultural issues. His February 2022 First Things article on the “three worlds of evangelicalism” was especially significant and urgent.

In it, he shows that American evangelicals have moved from the “positive world” (pre–1994) in which we were largely viewed as contributing to society, to the “neutral world” (1994–2014), in which we were viewed as one option among many, to the “negative world” (2014–present) in which we are seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. In my book The Coming Tsunami, I document this shift as well.

In such an antagonistic culture, it is even more imperative that you and I manifest our Lord’s selfless, sacrificial spirit of service:

  • When skeptics reject us, we know that they especially need our intercession, and we “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
  • When they reject our message, we know that they especially need to know God’s love, and we redouble our sacrificial efforts to share our Lord with them (cf. Acts 4:8–12; 5:29–32).
  • When people need resources we possess, we choose to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10), remembering that we are “serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24; cf. Matthew 25:40).

To this end, let’s make time this Thanksgiving week to offer Jesus our worship and gratitude for his sacrificial love for us. Then let’s see opportunities to serve our family, friends, and others as invitations to demonstrate his selfless character in our compassion.

St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (AD 460–533) described the transformation God intends for his children: “They are enlightened and converted, thus passing from death to life, sinfulness to holiness, unbelief to faith, and evil actions to holy life.”

Will those you see this week see this transformation in you?

NOTE: This is my last note about one of our most popular books every year: my wife Janet Denison’s Advent devotional. In the 25 short but empowering daily devotionals within The Gift of Immanuel, she helps us “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18). I highly encourage you to request your copy of The Gift of Immanuel right now.

Photo Courtesy: ©GettyImages/Ziga Plahutar

Publish Date: November 21, 2023

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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