“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11).
We started hiking with our children when they were very young. Of course when they’re toddlers, you have to carry them a lot. But as they grew older and got too heavy to carry, they had to walk by themselves. If they were motivated, they could literally run on a trail where Marla and I were struggling just to walk. But if they were not motivated, they acted like they could not walk a step farther.
And so it was always a challenge to figure out how to motivate the kids to climb a mountain. I remember when our second daughter was about seven and we were climbing Mt. Lassen in Northern California, which is over 10,400 feet high. It requires gaining almost 2,000 feet of elevation in about two and a half miles. I told her that I would beat her to the top. That was all the motivation she needed. She took off going faster than I could ever go. She beat us all to the summit. The issue was not muscle strength; the issue was motivation.
I tell that story because in Romans 12:11, Paul says that we are to “not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” He’s talking about people who are motivated to “run up the mountain,” passionate in their service for the Lord. So I must ask myself, “Does that describe me?” Am I fervent in spirit in my service for the Lord? Or, like the church in Laodicea, whom the Lord threatened to spew out of His mouth, could I be lukewarm (Revelation 3:15–16)? Could I be lazy in serving the Lord? Could I be indifferent to the cause of the Lord and Master who bought me with His blood?
Perhaps some of you are thinking, “I used to be diligent and fervent in serving the Lord, but I burned out. Other Christians criticized me. No one seemed to appreciate all of the long, hard hours I spent working behind the scenes. I don’t feel like going through that again.” If you feel like that, you need to refocus so that you get the proper motivation to serve. Paul has set forth the motivation that you need in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The supreme motivation to sacrificial, transformed service is “the mercies of God,” which Paul lays out in Romans chapters 1 through 11.
1. The Mercies of God Call Out: “Do Not Be Slothful”
“Slothful” is translated from a Greek word that means “lazy.” Jesus used the word to describe the lazy servant who didn’t bother to invest his master’s money, but just buried it in the ground (Matthew 25:26). God has given you spiritual gifts to be used in serving Him (Romans 12:3–8) and when you use those gifts to serve His kingdom purposes, He energizes you with His power. As Paul explains, “For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29). Of course, we all need to evaluate how much we are able to commit to. We will not be effective if we take on so much that we neglect our own souls (Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 4:16). But when you do what God has gifted you to do in the power that He supplies, it energizes you. You may be tired, but you’ll also be deeply satisfied.
2. The Mercies of God Call Out: “Be Fervent in Spirit”
The word translated “fervent” literally means, “to boil.” So Paul is describing a holy zeal or passion for God and His kingdom purposes. Paul isn’t describing someone who needs to be arm-twisted into “volunteering” for some ministry until finally he feels guilty and can’t figure a way out.
Paul is shouting, “Jesus Christ and the gospel should make your spirit boil! The good news that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners should excite you! The glorious fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord should stir your heart! Let the many mercies of God fuel the fires of passion for Christ and His kingdom! Don’t be lukewarm about such wonderful truths. Be fervent in spirit as you serve the Lord.”
3. The Mercies of God Call Out: “Serve the Lord”
All Christians are to be serving the Lord in some capacity. We saw this in Romans 12:4-8, where Paul develops the analogy of the Church as the body of Christ. Every part of the body is valuable and useful to the overall functioning of the body. If you’re not serving, you need to ask the Lord how He wants you to serve and begin doing it.
We must remember that we are not serving ourselves. It’s easy for Christians to fall into a mindset where it becomes “my ministry.” It brings me fulfillment and significance. I love the praise that people give me when I serve them. While there is great joy in serving the Lord and there is a legitimate sense of fulfillment when God uses you to serve others, we need to beware of serving ourselves rather than serving the Lord.
We are also not primarily serving others. True, there is a sense in which through love we serve one another (Galatians 5:13). We are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We are to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). But we serve the Lord, not people. In Galatians 1:10, Paul writes, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” We need to aim at pleasing God, who examines our hearts. We need to be faithful to His truth, even if people despise us for it. We only serve people secondarily. It is the Lord Christ whom we serve.
He is the Lord of glory, who gave up the splendor of heaven to endure the abuse of sinners in order to bring us to glory. It’s a great privilege to serve this gracious, loving Lord! It’s not a burdensome duty, but a joy to serve the King of kings, who sacrificed Himself to rescue me.
—Steven J. Cole, condensed