Serving God vs. Serving People: Understanding the Difference

AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

You’re a Christian who claims to be serving God.  But is that what you’re actually doing?  Or is it just what you think you’re doing?  Do you understand what it means to serve God?  Most Christians don’t.  We certainly aren’t taught how to serve God in church.  At church we’re only taught how to serve people—people who tell us that we should trust them to interpret God’s will for us.  But should we? 

Becky is the Children’s Ministry Director at her church.  Becky claims to be serving God, but she’s really serving herself which is why the ministry is always going just the way she wants it to.  Every Sunday, Becky’s team of volunteers head to their classrooms to teach the curriculum that Becky has told them to teach.  As they present the lesson that Becky has assigned to them, they strive to teach in a style that Becky would like.  When church is over, Becky’s team members get together with her to report how their classes went. If there were problems, they look to Becky for help.  If things went well, they look to Becky for praise.  Becky’s team members are working hard to please Becky while they claim to be working for God.

And then there is Pastor Rick.  Rick claims that God called him to preach, when really it was his father who pressured him into going to seminary.  Rick’s father is a pastor who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.  So for ten years, Rick has been preaching in an effort to earn his father’s approval.  Rick really isn’t serving God, he’s serving his father, which is why Rick always asks for his father’s feedback on his sermon notes before he makes a final draft.

And then there is Father Ben.  Father Ben claims to be serving God, but he’s really serving the Catholic Church.  It’s the Church who tells Ben what to say and how to pray every week.  The Church has loaded Ben up with a stack of manuals which give Ben step-by-step instructions for what to do in a variety of situations.  Because Ben is such a dedicated servant, he always sticks to the script.  Ben is certainly doing a good job of serving someone, but that someone isn’t God.

And then there is Rob.  When people ask Rob how he serves God, Rob says that he sings in the church choir.  And yet as we watch Rob in action, we notice that he only ever sings what the choir director tells him to sing.  Sometimes Rob doesn’t like the lyrics of the songs he sings, but he sings them anyway because he is such a committed servant.  The problem is that he’s not serving God, he’s serving the choir director, the other members of the choir, and his own ego, which really enjoys being on stage.

And then there is Teresa.  Teresa says that she’s serving God by going on a mission trip to Mexico.  But is she really serving God?  No, she’s serving herself, her pastor, and her friend Lucy.  Teresa has always wanted to visit Mexico, and this mission trip gives her a cheap way to do it.  Her pastor specifically asked Teresa to go, because he really wanted his church to be well-represented in the mission effort.  Lucy also asked Teresa to sign up, because she was uncomfortable going with a group of strangers.  There’s no question that Teresa is serving someone by going on this mission trip.  She’s serving several beings, in fact, but none of them are God.

So who is that you are serving?  Is it really God?  Or is it just humans?  How can you tell the difference? That’s a very good question.

If God was a lot like us, then serving Him would feel the same as serving a human and it would be hard to tell the difference.  But because God is so very different than us, serving Him ends up being a very different experience than serving ourselves or other humans.  Let’s now run through a list of some of God’s unique Characteristics and see how these facts effect our experience of serving Him.


When you serve another human, you’re working with your equal.  Sure, you might admire your pastor because he has more Bible verses memorized than you do, but it’s not like the man can walk on water.  When he gets that haggard look on his face or trips on the steps of the stage or loses his train of thought mid-sentence, you are reminded that he’s got plenty of limitations, just like you. With God, it’s a totally different story.  When the same Being who created all that exists calls you to do something for Him, it’s not like your peer is asking you for some assistance.  It’s more like a Being with infinite abilities is asking an impotent speck to get involved with something He’s doing.  You don’t snap on your hero cape and rush in to save the day.  Instead, you wonder why God wants to bother involving a dolt like you in something that He could so obviously do on His own.

You can’t help a Being as powerful as God.  The whole idea of you actually assisting the same God who you depend on to take your next breath is utterly ludicrous.  Serving God has nothing to do with trying to help Him overcome His personal limitations or expand His abilities.  When God calls us to serve Him, He’s not asking for help, He’s inviting us to commune with Him.  He’s calling us to accompany Him on a journey that He’s taking with or without us.  He’s offering us a front row seat to watch His Genius at work.  It’s understood that we’re not His partners in the effort.  We’re just His audience, and He is the Star Performer who will both mystify and astound us with what He’s about to accomplish.


What this means is that God’s control over His creations is absolute, not partial.  In other words, God always gets what He wants.  What a contrast to humans, who hardly ever get exactly what they want in this world.  When you join a human ministry team, there’s a whole lot of stressing going on every time some unexpected obstacle arises.  Christians commonly deal with their stress by peppering God with a bunch of anxious prayers that are telling Him how to fix what they perceive to be a great crisis.  But of course our Sovereign Creator never finds Himself in a crisis about anything because He is always in control.  He never gets surprised or caught off guard.  He never feels threatened by what His teensy little creatures are scheming.  Just as the eye of a hurricane is eerily calm and still while its walls of wind are ripping things to shreds, amid the chaotic swirl of God’s extreme passions we find a Being who is perfectly serene, relaxed, and utterly unflappable. While human leaders will wear you out with all of their fretting and stressing, God teaches you how to remain calm while everything is falling apart.


When you’re serving humans, you’re serving beings with very limited intelligence, and so it makes sense for you to pipe up with your insights and point out the flaws in their logic.  When you’re working with humans, it’s quite reasonable to expect that sometimes you’ll see some important detail that they’re missing and vice versa.  Since humans learn through experience, those with more experience in an area feel justified in shutting down those with less.  When you’re working with humans, arguments abound, egos clash, and people take turns at being wrong because no one is smart enough to do it right all the time.  But when you’re serving an all-wise God, you’re way out of your league.  Compared to Him, you’re as dumb as a rock, and that makes you sound like quite the mouthy little twerp when you start criticizing what He’s doing.  Of course we all do criticize God’s work, because we’re so quick to lose sight of how ignorant we are.  But then God reminds us Who it is we’re talking to, and we apologize for being so ridiculous.

When an all-wise God drops an assignment into your lap, the first thing you realize is that you have no idea how to accomplish the goal He’s put in front of you.  Speak His messages?  What does that even mean? How can a blind and foolish speck of a creature even begin to accurately convey the words of an all-wise God?  Witness?  Teach children?  Teach adults?  Start a church?  Mentor someone? Help the poor?  Make the world a better place?  Be a good spiritual role model?  How can creatures who are so lacking in wisdom and so limited in ability even know where to start when it comes to accomplishing complex tasks?  When we don’t even understand ourselves, how can we presume to know what is best for anyone else?  With no control over the future, we can’t ensure the success of any project we start.  And with no ability to see into the souls of others, we can’t begin to accurately assess what is truly best for anyone in a given moment.  As logical as it seems to try and supply every need we come across, war against every injustice, and strive to put the whole world at peace, God tells us that this is really not the wise approach.  He says that He has good reasons for bringing trials and troubles into our lives, and that He won’t allow us to make problems go away until they’ve accomplished His purposes.  Because so much of what God does seems backwards, destructive, and wrong to us, how can we possibly partner with Him in any task?  We can’t.  All we can do is follow behind as He leads us down the convoluted path of His will.

When we serve God, we spend a lot of time feeling confused about how what He’s telling us to do today could possibly be the right thing.  When we serve God, we don’t get to see the master plan or cast a vote on His decisions.  He intentionally keeps us in the dark much of the time about the wisdom of His methods because He isn’t interested in our approval—He wants to mature us.  He hasn’t called us over to be His critics, but to learn how to become better followers and dependents.  Serving God has nothing to do with helping Him and everything to do with learning how to improve the way that we personally treat Him.  When things go well, there’s no glory in it for us—just humbling reminders of how God really is so much wiser than we give Him credit for.


Humans are fairly predictable creatures who enjoy having some sense of what’s in their future.  Pastor John is a big fan of sermon series, and when he says the next six weeks are going to be about love, his congregation knows that he won’t deviate from that plan.

Meanwhile Ted’s denomination has taught him to go plodding through the Bible verse by verse, year after year, so that’s what Ted does.  When he comes to a hefty book like Isaiah, his congregation knows that they’re going to be stuck there for quite a while because Ted never jumps around.

Then there’s Ellen, who loves buying VBS program packages which some other company has gone to the trouble of creating, analyzing, and testing for success.

Meanwhile Brian has a comfortable routine worked out of helping at the homeless shelter on Thursdays, going to Bible study on Wednesdays, going to a prayer meeting on Fridays, and showing up for church on Sundays.

It never even occurs to Rita to ask God what passage of Scripture she should read or if He even wants her reading the Bible at all—she just works her way through a handy schedule of daily devotions that she found on the internet.

Sam’s congregation is working hard to collect enough money to purchase a bigger property for their church and Sam wouldn’t dare to try and call the whole thing off after all of the hype he’s put into it.

Mark is a worship leader who feels totally uninspired about the songs he’s planning for Sunday, but he can’t just skip it—that’s simply not allowed.

Ed is struggling to pull some sermon together about Easter because it’s that time of year, and a pastor can’t possibly preach on something other than Jesus’ resurrection on Easter.

Wendy is dreading having to put together another children’s Christmas pageant, but it’s expected, so she feels like she has no choice.

Humans are predictable, and they can be easily controlled through peer pressure, financial incentives, and threats.  So when you’re serving humans, you know what you’re getting into.  Someone is going to be in charge, and that someone is going to want you to conform to their agenda. If you refuse, they’ll find ways to make you miserable. If you want to be accepted, you’ll have to conform.

But then there’s God: a Being who delights in being wild and unpredictable. God is immune to the manipulation tactics that we use to keep our fellow humans in line.  God is well aware that you’re right in the middle of a six week series on grace when He tells you to scrap the series and switch to a sermon on wrath.  God knows all about how the denomination is threatening to fire you if you discuss certain subjects from the pulpit.  He knows that you’ll feel like a dingdong if you show up on Sunday morning with nothing to say. He knows that your pastor takes a dim view of home group leaders that try to go off script.  God is fully aware of how awkward, inconvenient, and downright embarrassing His orders to us can be, but that doesn’t stop Him from giving them. God loves making and breaking patterns.  He’s a big fan of sudden turns, wild reversals, and last minute revisions.

Harrison used to prep for his sermons, but now he doesn’t even try because he knows God will change the whole message the moment Harrison mans his pulpit.  Worship leader Ed makes no promises about the songs that he’ll play Sunday morning because he’s learned to leave room for God to change His orders at the last minute.  When other pastors in the community try to pressure Riley into synchronizing his sermons with theirs, Riley tells them to take a hike because he only takes orders from God.  When Marsha is handed a manual on how to teach effective Sunday school lessons, she hands it right back and says God is more than able to instruct her on how He wants her to interact with His own creatures.  Eva quits the choir when the director insists on having everyone sing a song that she feels is offensive to God.  Amber refuses to lead VBS again because she feels God just isn’t in it this year.  Mason told his small group that they’d work their way through the book of John, but when they show up at the first meeting, he announces God has changed the focus to the book of Exodus.  Alice used to read the Bible every day until God told her to take a break, and now she hasn’t read it in years.  When Victor feels convicted that God doesn’t want his congregation buying a new church, he announces that all the money already collected will be given to a charity instead.  Victor is then fired by his outraged parishioners, but he walks out the door with his head held high, making no apologies for staying in step with God.

When you serve an unpredictable God,  you’re guaranteed to have a wild ride.  He’ll suddenly tell you to resign just when everything’s going great.  He’ll tell you to double your efforts when it seems obvious that nothing you do is even working.  When you’re desperate to see numerical evidence of the difference you’re making, He’ll hide it all from your sight, and then when you’re so down that you’re ready to quit in despair, He’ll suddenly show you a glimpse of all the good He’s accomplishing through you.  He’ll tell you to say the wrong things in the wrong moments, then He’ll refuse to let you say or do what you’re so sure would be right.  He’ll set you up to expect one thing only to give you the very opposite. He’ll drive you crazy with nonsensical, contradictory orders until you finally give up on even trying to figure out why He does what He does.  Then you’ll finally be in the right position to really enjoy the wild adventure that follows when God invites you to tagalong with Him.  You certainly won’t feel in control, but that will cease to bother you, because serving God has nothing to do with you trying to control others.  It has everything to do with you learning to relax while He controls you.


There is so much more we could say about God’s unique qualities, but now it’s time for a little application.  If we’re going to serve God well, we must serve Him in a way which acknowledges and respects who He is.  And bearing in mind that God is all-powerful, sovereign, infinitely wise, and totally unpredictable, let’s now consider the validity of the following common motivations Christians have for getting involved in ministry efforts.

1. “If I don’t sign up, no one will.”

In other words, you’re just signing up to try and get the peer pressure going—to try and influence the choices others are making.  This is a lousy motivation to serve. Being all-powerful, God doesn’t need your help to get a ministry effort off the ground.  But since God is unpredictable, it’s quite possible that you have misjudged how important this particular ministry effort is to Him.  It might be a great idea, but your all-wise God might know that this is not the right time.  So who are you going to serve?  If you’re going to serve God, then you need to be sure that He is actually convicting you to volunteer before you do.  Then you need to trust Him with the outcome.  Maybe you sign up, but no one else does, so the whole idea is chucked. Is that a bad thing?  No, it’s what God wants.  This is His world, and He is always getting His way.

2. “There is a great need for this ministry, so someone needs to step up.”

What happened to God being in control?  Whenever we think there’s some crisis before us, we need to step back, take a breath, and return to those four essential facts.  God is all powerful.  He’s always in control.  He’s infinitely wiser than we are, and He’s unpredictable.  Sure, there’s a need, but don’t confuse a need with a command for you to personally get involved.  Wait for God to invite you into His work, because only then will you have the opportunity to please Him with your service. If instead, you go barging in ahead of Him, promoting yourself as the wiser, more capable one, then you are just asking for discipline.

Despite what our instincts tell us when we look around at this world with our teensy little brains and nonexistent wisdom, God really isn’t doing a crummy job of managing the human race.  On the contrary, He would say that He’s doing a stellar job, and if we’re going to serve Him well, we need to do a better job of aligning with His assessment of things.  When we launch a ministry with an attitude of, “I’m here to clean up the mess that God has made,” we’re setting ourselves up as God’s superiors.  Soon we’re tossing up the bossy demands for God to bless all of the plans we’ve made without bothering to consult Him.  This is hardly an honoring way to treat our glorious Creator.

3. “I need to do this to convince other Christians that I’m serious about pleasing God.”

Why?  Other Christians aren’t your judges in life, and their approval is utterly irrelevant.  It’s only God’s opinion that matters, and God is not pleased when we go rushing in without Him.

4. “I have to start serving somewhere or God will think I’m a selfish slacker.”

How wise would God be if He relied on your external behaviors to determine how your soul felt about Him?  Not very.  But as the all-wise Being that He is, God never misjudges your intentions.  When you’re not serving because He’s telling you to stay on the bench, is He really going to be annoyed with you for obeying Him?  No, He’s going to be quite pleased.  God knows how hard it is for dots like us to hold our ground in the face of a bunch of peer pressure and Scripture quoting guilt trips.  But regardless of what other Christians are saying, you and God know whether or not He’s telling you to get involved in some ministry effort.  Remember that you can’t serve both God and humans—you have to choose one master.  Choose God and refuse to go against the convictions He is giving you.  If His current instructions to you don’t look biblical or devoted or righteous enough for other Christians, they can lump it.  Life is about pleasing God, not groveling for the approval of created specks.  Keep your focus on what matters and decide that you are going to be the kind of servant who puts pleasing your Master first.


God doesn’t need our help to do His God thing.  He was getting along just fine before we even existed, and once we understand this, we can finally see what a thrilling thing it is that God chose to create us in the first place.  Forget about the arrogant guff Christians put out about God needing someone to love.  God doesn’t need anything from anyone—He’s perfectly content with His own glorious Company.  God didn’t create us because He needed us, but rather because He wanted us.  Now that we exist, we are presented with the incredible invitation of establishing personal relationships with a truly amazing, utterly mystifying, yet totally enticing Deity who is so very different than the created beings we’ve known.  The more serious we are about pleasing God, the closer He will invite us to come to Him.  He is the glorious Prize that we are supposed to be pursuing—His glorious Self, not just the good things that He can give to us.  Once God Himself is the Treasure we are cherishing, we will be eager to keep improving our treatment of Him.

Learning to serve God well is an enticing challenge that is a joy to take on.  Learning to serve God well comes down to embracing and respecting Who He is.  Every time He reveals some new fact about Himself, we have the opportunity to respond to that insight by adjusting our attitudes and actions.  There simply is no place for us to be telling an all-wise God how to manage His own creations.  There’s no room for us acting like we are more capable than God is, or for us trying to circumvent Him in our efforts to get our own agendas done.  And as for God’s unpredictability—that particular trait is certainly a challenge for humans to snuggle up to. But with His help, we can get there, and the more we cooperate with God’s coaching, the more we will enjoy the adventure of serving Him.  As humans, we were designed to find it very satisfying to revolve around our Creator.  The better we get at serving God the way He wants to be served, the more devoted we become to Him and the less interested we become in serving anyone else.

Preparing for the End Times: Serving without Limits
Guidance for Preachers: Understanding the Call
Being Called by God: The Responsibility & The Risk
Treating God Like God: Simple Steps to Improving the Way that We Pray
When God Sets You Up to Look Stupid: Help for Humiliated Christians
Choosing the Right Priorities: How does God want us to treat our brothers?