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I don’t believe that: Heart over service — Part 1

“God wants your heart more than your service,” the church sign read. As I passed by, my response was simple: “I don’t believe that.”  

This happens from time to time. I read or hear something that I think many other Christians may believe and agree with, but I don’t. 

It’s an uncomfortable moment for a clergyperson. What would happen if others found out? What would they think of me? 

But it also drives me to think through what I DO believe; an exercise I find extremely fruitful. 

So, I’m going to risk it. In this post, I’m going to say the normally quiet part out loud, and post it on the internet.

False dichotomy

Back to the sign: God wants your heart more than your service.

I don’t like the either/or choice implied. As if our heart and our service are disconnected. As if God wants either your heart or your service. That’s problematic, at best. 

The Bible seems to teach us that our hearts and service are deeply intertwined. I would go so far as to say that this is one of Jesus’s core teachings. 

One of his best-known parables–the one we call “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) — addresses this very point. When a religious leader asks Jesus to define what he means by a neighbor, Jesus tells a story where those with all appearances of belief—those who have jobs within the community of faith—miss the boat. They ignore a hurting person left for dead by the side of the road.

The hero of Jesus’s story is one we might call a non-believer, or maybe more accurately, a member of a denomination that believes differently than us. The one with “wrong” beliefs, the “unorthodox” one, is the model to follow in Jesus’s story. 

For Jesus, the service matters.

Then, there’s a section in the book of James that directly addresses this false dichotomy between heart and service (2:14-26):

My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? … Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

Other, more familiar versions say, “faith without works is dead.” 

Or in the parlance of our sign, “a heart without service is dead.” 

A few verses later we read, “I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.” 

For Jesus and James, your heart and your service are not separate.

Another participant in this conversation is Paul. If you know the Bible well, you might be thinking, ‘Hey Joe, what about Ephesians 2:8-9.’ That reads, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.”

Seems to be all about the heart there, right? All about how your salvation is a gift you receive because of your faith. 

Except, if we keep reading to the very next sentence, service enters the conversation. The whole passage reads,

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

Ephesians 2:8-10 emphasis added

Doing good things sounds a lot like service. Jesus, James, and Paul all talk about our hearts and our service not as two parts of a whole.

Parts of a whole

As best I can tell, God is all about the whole.

Jesus seemed fond of images of wholeness. He told stories about banquets, families, agriculture, and animals—lots of stories about connection and interdependence. 

The early church talked about a one-ness among the believers—how there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Instead, the early church insisted we are all part of one body.

Yet, we, as human beings who feel the need to categorize things to find our place in the world, tend to focus instead on other images Jesus uses. 

We (mis)understand when Jesus talks about two realms—God’s realm and ours.

Photo by Joe Iovino.

Sometimes he used “kingdom” language—the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew prefers.  Other times, the Bible uses “age” language. We read about the age to come and the fullness of time. 

When we encounter these images, we tend to think about the Kingdom of God/Heaven, in either/or language–either one of us or not. And we think about the age to come on a timeline. First, we’re in this present age, and someday we will get to enter the age to come. 

We picture a Venn diagram of two circles: Kingdom of God on the left; the world right–with a sliver of overlap in the middle. 

But Jesus seemed to talk about God’s realm and our world as a concurrent realities. The Kingdom of God is not outside and separate from the world in which we live, it is the eternal truth in which the world resides. 

The same with the age to come. The fullness of time exists not at the end of our current timeline, but outside of it. Or to put it another way, the time we experience now, exists within the age to come, within the fullness of time. 

The Kingdom of God and the Age to Come are eternal. That doesn’t mean they exist after what happens in our world, but rather that they exist outside the boundaries of time. 

So our Venn diagram shouldn’t be two separate circles with intersection, but instead a circle representing our world/age/time fully contained within a much larger Kingdom of God/Heaven, fullness of time circle.

To put it another way, our realm exists within God’s realm

The world we experience is a part of a whole. It is not a separate reality. Heaven is here, and from time to time we get to experience a small glimpse of it when we reside in a thin place. Sometimes, we have eternal moments within time.

On earth as it is in heaven

Jesus teaches for us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a prayer for the end of time, but for justice and peace to reign now. 

When we begin to think of the world this way—earth existing within the realm and time of God—our role on earth ceases to be about waiting for God to give us the green light—at death, the rapture, or the resurrection—to be all we’ve been created to be, to get to live in God’s world. Instead, we begin to hear Jesus inviting us to participate in the Kingdom of God right here, right now. To join him at the table.

So when we talk about service—the things we do in this world—they are a participation in the Kingdom of God. They are expressions of our heart. 

To give someone something to eat is to participate in the unseen Kingdom of God that is all around us. To slow down, roll down your window and offer your hard earned money to the person at the traffic light, is an expression our your faith in the age to come—present in the world right now. To give your time to listen to a coworker who is struggling, to sacrifice for your children, to drive your neighbor to the doctor or bring them a casserole after a surgery is a faithful expression of your participation in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is all living the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” 

I’ll show you my faith by putting it into action. 

Who was the neighbor? The one who showed mercy. 

You have been saved by faith, to do good things that God would have you do. 

To separate our heart from our service is impossible. Our service is an expression of our heart—not something separate from it. 

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