Excerpt from Celebration of Discipline

If true service is to be understood and practiced, it must be distinguished clearly from self-righteous service.” 

Self-righteous service comes through human effort. It expends immense amounts of energy calculating and scheming how to render the service. Sociological charts and surveys are devised so we can help those people.” True service comes from a relationship with the divine Other deep inside. We serve out of whispered promptings, divine urgings. Energy is expended but it is not the frantic energy of the flesh. Thomas Kelly writes, I find He never guides us into an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness.”1

Self-righteous service is impressed with the big deal.” It is concerned to make impressive gains on ecclesiastical score-boards. It enjoys serving, especially when the service is titanic. True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service. Where a difference is noted, the true servant is often drawn to the small service, not out of false modesty, but because he genuinely sees it as the more important task. He indiscriminately welcomes all opportunities to serve. 

Self-righteous service requires external rewards. It needs to know that people see and appreciate the effort. It seeks human applause— with proper religious modesty of course. True service rests contented in hiddenness. It does not fear the lights and blare of attention, but it does not seek them either. Since it is living out of a new Center of reference, the divine nod of approval is completely sufficient. 

Self-righteous service is highly concerned about results. It eagerly waits to see if the person served will reciprocate in kind. It becomes bitter when the results fall below expectations. True service is free of the need to calculate results. It delights only in the service. It can serve enemies as freely as friends. 

Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve. Sometimes the high and powerful are served because that will ensure a certain advantage. Sometimes the low and defenseless are served because that will ensure a humble image. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry. It has heard the command of Jesus to be the servant of all” (Mark 9: 35). Brother Francis of Assisi notes in a letter, Being the servant of all, I am bound to serve all and to administer the balm-bearing words of my lord.”2

Self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims. It can serve only when there is a feeling” to serve (“ moved by the Spirit” as we say). Ill health or inadequate sleep controls the desire to serve. True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need. It knows that the feeling to serve” can often be a hindrance to true service. The service disciplines the feelings rather than allowing the feeling to control the service. 

Self-righteous service is temporary. It functions only while the specific acts of service are being performed. Having served, it can rest easy. True service is a life-style. It acts from ingrained patterns of living. It springs spontaneously to meet human need. 

Self-righteous service is insensitive. It insists on meeting the need even when to do so would be destructive. It demands the opportunity to help. True service can withhold the service as freely as perform it. It can listen with tenderness and patience before acting. It can serve by waiting in silence. They also serve who only stand and wait.”3

Self-righteous service fractures community. In the final analysis, once all the religious trappings are removed, it centers in the glorification of the individual. Therefore it puts others into its debt and becomes one of the most subtle and destructive forms of manipulation known. True service builds community. It quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for the needs of others. It draws, binds, heals, builds.

Excerpted from Celebration of Discipline (HarperOne, 1998 — 3rd Ed.) 

[1] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), p. 124

[2] St. Francis of Assisi, Selections from the Writings of St. Francis of Assisi (Nashville: Upper Room Press, 1952), p. 25

[3] John Milton, The Complete Works of John Milton (New York: Crown, 1936), p. 614.

Text First Published December 1977