Theology Thursday: Counter-Cultural Spiritual Disciplines of Service and Secrecy

Missionary helping a child's spiritual growth while on a walk

Service can be an unpopular idea in today’s culture where people are bombarded with slogans telling them to “go big or go home,” “get their game on,” “level up,” and remember that the “winner takes all.” It is not serving others but serving the self that is the focus of advertisers who want to drive up revenue and the bottom line.

During the “great resignation” of the last two years, the service industry took a particularly hard hit as employees left the industry in droves, tired of being treated poorly by customers who devalued the very people who were trying to help them. It can be hard to serve.

The idea of serving others in secrecy is even more counter-cultural in these days of social media when people are quick to post their good deeds online for all the world to see and celebrate. However, doing acts of service in exchange for people’s good opinion or another type of award is not what the discipline of service is all about.

Cultivating Compassion and Humility

The spiritual discipline of service means choosing to do something for someone else (often in secret) without expecting anything else in return. Service involves seeing a need and meeting that need without expecting thanks or any type of reciprocity. Service is a way of learning to value others and cultivate a heart of compassion.

Jesus is the ultimate example of a servant. He laid aside all the privileges of divinity to become human, walk alongside people, and willingly die on the cross to make a way for people to be saved from sin and restored in a relationship with God. He healed people, fed people, taught people, and loved people. The night before he died, Jesus performed the lowly task of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13).

Out of his heart of love and compassion, Jesus served. He called his followers to do the same. As people serve others, they cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their own transformation. As they serve, the Holy Spirit works in them to cultivate eyes that see and value other people. Repeatedly practicing the discipline of service causes someone to develop a heart of compassion that will eventually serve others instinctually because serving has become part of their character. They will no longer have to plan to serve; they will serve automatically. When people serve secretly, without drawing attention to their work, they develop a character marked by humility. Someone who is humble neither thinks too highly of themselves, nor thinks less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.1 Someone who is humble grounds their identity not in what they do, but in whose they are — a child of God and a follower of Jesus.

They understand there is nothing they can do to make God love them more or love them less. They know they are fully loved by God — period. Out of this identity grounded in God’s love, they become people who love. As they love, they serve and do it just because that is who they are. There is no need for attention or reward.

Training for Christlikeness

Practicing spiritual disciplines is a way to train for Christlikeness. Just like musicians practice scales and athletes practice drills, followers of Jesus train to become more like him by practicing spiritual disciplines. When he was writing to young pastor Timothy, the apostle Paul said, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:17, NIV). Spiritual disciplines are a training method. The follower of Jesus can apply effort to their own spiritual growth just as they apply effort to their academic or physical growth. The Holy Spirit does the actual work of transformation in the Christian’s life, but people are not absent from the process. They can cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work as they train for godliness.

Grace undergirds the whole process of training and transformation. Training is not about earning anything from God, keeping a list of rules, or becoming superior to others. Training is about learning to live in God’s kingdom where transformation, abundance and grace overflow. Training does not contradict God’s grace, for grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.2 As the follower of Christ trains for godliness by practicing the disciplines of service and secrecy, they become transformed people who receive God’s grace and let it flow out of them onto others.

Practicing the Spiritual Disciplines of Service and Secrecy

Do something for someone else (in secret if possible). Put the neighbors’ trash on the curb for them, clean the sink in the break room, help someone load groceries in their trunk, take a meal to someone who is housebound, send your pastor or your child’s teacher a note of encouragement. Expect nothing in return. Let God’s grace and compassion fill you and flow out of you through service.

Read more Theology Thursday blogs and learn about theology and ministry degree programs offered by GCU's College of Theology today.



1 Keller, T. (2008, December). The advent of humility: Jesus is the reason to stop concentrating on ourselves. Christianity Today, 52(12), 50+.

2 Willard, D. (2006). The great omission: Reclaiming Jesus's essential teachings on discipleship. New York: Harper Collins.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.


Scroll back to top