Sometimes It’s Best to Stop Being a Servant
By Leslie Vernick
I was speaking at a major Christian University about building healthy relationships and a student approached me with a problem. He said, “You teach mutuality and reciprocity are important components in healthy relationships but I get confused because I’ve been taught Christ calls me to be a servant without looking for anything in return.”
He went on to tell me that he’d been practicing servant-hood with his college roommate all semester. He sited examples such as driving his roommate to the bus stop or shopping. He helped his roommate with his study skills, lent him money when he was short, and even straightened out his side of the bedroom. But this servant was getting a little worn out and resentful. His roommate never reciprocated with kindness in return. He never offered to pay for the gas, nor ever asked him how he might meet some of his needs.
As much as this young college student longed to reflect Christ he found himself struggling with the reality that a one sided relationship is not really a true friendship. He wasn’t sure if he needed to speak up and tell his roommate how he felt or confess his negative emotions to God and continue to practice selflessness by serving his roommate.
Jesus did teach and demonstrate servant-hood to his followers as a model of leadership. Yet, Jesus also had real relationships with people where he allowed himself to be served. Mary and Martha, Jesus’ friends, served him. His disciples also served him at times. When Jesus was the only one giving it wasn’t a mutual friendship, it was a ministry.
This is where this young man got confused. Servant-hood is an important discipline for spiritual maturity so that we can reflect Christ to others. However when we repeatedly serve someone and there is no reciprocity or mutuality in return, the relationship doesn’t deepen into a friendship and becomes lopsided. Jesus gladly served others, but when they never reciprocated with even a “thank you” he noticed. (See the story of the 10 lepers in Luke 17:11-19.)
I challenged this young man to consider whether serving his roommate might actually be doing his roommate more harm than good. By sacrificially serving him, he enabled his roommate’s entitlement as well as his growing immaturity and selfishness. The apostle Paul speaks about mutuality and reciprocity in many of the “one another” passages of Scripture. We are called to loving relationships, and servant-hood is part of that process but not the only part.
I encouraged this young man to work on letting go of his anger and resentment but also to wire up his courage and have an honest conversation with his roommate. He might need to say something like, “I think I’ve tried really hard to be a good friend to you. For example, I see you have a need and I drive you or let you use my car when you have to get something from the store. I have given you study tips and helped you out when you were short of cash. I think that’s what good friends do for one another. But you’ve never once asked what you could do for me. When you saw I was sick in bed with the flu last week you never asked if I needed anything or could help me. That hurt and it felt like you didn’t care about me. Friendship goes two ways and I’m wondering why you’re very willing to receive from me, but you don’t give anything back?”
His roommate probably won’t like that challenge, but if the young man delivers it in a caring, compassionate way, it just might be an opportunity for his roommate to press pause, reflect on his own attitudes and behaviors and begin to see that if you want to have lasting friendships you must give back.
If you need to build more CORE Strength for yourself in order to stop enabling other people's selfishness, click here.