Recovering a Culture of Servanthood

Serving tea in Central Asia.

Growing up, I fully believed the encouragement that I could be whoever I wanted to be: teacher, writer, explorer, president. I dreamed, I studied, and I worked hard. I also read stories of missionaries. I felt the tug to surrender my future vocation to Jesus, and while I agreed to follow him wherever he might lead, I thought the path would still keep me within my gifts and comfort zone. Learning a foreign language didn’t seem likely. Living outside the US didn’t seem to fit either.

In college, I wrestled with the Lord and surrendered again as he marked out a path that led to unreached peoples in Central Asia. If it surprised me, it surprised my parents even more: “You’ve studied for four years to be a journalist, and now you are going to Obscure-istan?” Those weren’t my mom’s exact words, but they are close. When she told me I could be anything, becoming a missionary probably wasn’t on her radar.

Twenty-seven years later, I’m still here. Still in Obscure-istan. Not on track to the presidency of anything, teaching only in the loosest sense of the word, writing stories only occasionally. My life looks like nothing I ever imagined, and that is both a blessing and a challenge.

An Unscripted Life

Every day, I get up and know there won’t be much consistency or unity to the tasks ahead. I’ll straighten the house after breakfast, meet a young believer for mid-morning coffee, swing by the grocery store at lunchtime, teach a class at my children’s school in the afternoon, cook dinner and visit with my family, and catch up on email. This is a rough description of an ordinary day, and yet no day here is the same. Guests from out of town may show up one week; a security crisis might spike the next.

“The missionary task is not like a nine-to-five job. It’s an ever-changing, unscripted life.”

Some days I get to minister in my sweet spot—discipling or teaching or writing. But most days I feel the ache of stretching constantly outside my comfort zone, wrestling to speak well in a foreign language, pushing through introversion to meet new people, navigating a culture full of rules I don’t understand.

The missionary task is not like a nine-to-five job. It’s an ever-changing, unscripted life. And while it never gets boring, I have to admit that I struggle with the blurred lines. The role looks different for each person. And on especially hard days, I wonder if I even have a role.

I know the truth that my significance is not defined by my service but rather by my relationship to the King of Kings. I understand that my greatest calling is to worship Jesus in whatever task he gives me day to day. And yet I struggle.

The Centrality of Servanthood

Lately as I’ve again cycled into a season of questioning and doubt, the Lord has led me to meditate on the book of Philippians. As I’ve listened to the words of the apostle Paul, the Spirit has given me some concrete handles for understanding my role.

I Must Embrace My Identity as a Servant (Phil. 1:12–14)

I can try to find significance in all the other roles I work to fulfill, but if I don’t embrace my calling as a servant, I will remain frustrated by the lack of clarity and unity to the tasks before me each day. Paul so understood his identity as a servant that it didn’t matter that God stationed him with shackles inside a jail cell for a season.

Rather than gripe and complain, fearing his life had no significance anymore, Paul repeatedly rejoiced in God’s plan. He trusted that God was using his service for his purposes, even if from all appearances Paul was doing little. He couldn’t preach. He couldn’t travel. But Paul’s identity was so rooted in relationship and service to Jesus that he could say he was even fine to die if that was God’s will.

Being a Servant Means Unavoidable Suffering (Phil. 1:15–20)

While Paul sat in jail, unable to preach freely, others got the podium to preach and use the opportunity to spite Paul and hurt him further. However, even in this Paul rejoiced. He saw that his service, sitting in jail, was encouraging other people to preach from right motives and to witness fearlessly.

Even those who were preaching from false motives were sharing the gospel of Jesus with those who didn’t know him. In humility, Paul understood that his role was to give his life so that others would know Jesus better, even if they had to stand on his back to do it.

Jesus Is the Greatest Example of a Suffering Servant (Phil. 2:5–11)

Jesus could have clung to a title and position, and yet he set it all aside. He was shamed and mocked. People laughed and grabbed for power at his expense. They misunderstood him at every turn. Yet he did the things asked of him. He entrusted himself to the Father and put one foot after another, healing, blessing, teaching—always letting the Father set the agenda.

A Savior Who Serves

Even now Jesus serves us, interceding before the Father on our behalf (Rom. 8:34). If the King of Kings is himself the greatest servant, why would I resist such a role? How could I not want to follow in his footsteps, even in obscure suffering, if it means I will become more like him?

Paul was glad to lay aside every earthly gain if he could just know Jesus. He understood that to follow him meant walking the Calvary road, sharing in suffering, and yet, ultimately sharing in glory as well (Phil. 3:7–11, 20–21).

So, my prayer in this season of questioning is simply this: God, give me the faith to understand that quiet, obscure, unpredictable service, offered in your name, brings you great glory. May I say with Paul that I have learned contentedness in all things because knowing you is my highest ambition and greatest joy.

Sarah Alexander and her family serve with IMB in Central Asia. She has been writing about the region since 1991.