This saying of Jesus comes close to giving us our job description for earthly life. It occurs in a context of some wanting special standing and privilege. Jesus responds by pointing out that if the Son of Man himself came into the world to be a servant of all—in other words, to be a person living and dying for others—then his followers must see that as their vocation as well. The apostle Paul makes much the same point in Philippians 2:9-11.
Jesus, the Man for others, gave his life for us. He died in our place for our sins; he paid the price that we couldn’t pay. In doing so, he lived out his teaching that this is the key to human life in general. And this is exactly what millions have discovered over the centuries: true joy and fulfillment on this earth lie not in doing our own will and accumulating more and more things for ourselves, but in giving them and ourselves away to others.
Who are those who come to the end of life with a sense of really having lived well and to the fullest? Who among us have the fewest hang-ups and neuroses, the least guilt, and fewest regrets? It’s those who have willingly and joyfully given up the heavy burden of trying to fulfill themselves first and moved full steam ahead into the task of helping, feeding, sheltering, rescuing, and loving others. This fact is the easiest thing in the world to prove.
Some of the happiest people you will ever meet are those whose lives are spent in some form of sacrifice for others, who give their time and energies to the Gospel and to the work of lifting up those on the bottom rung of the ladder—physically, materially, or emotionally. More and greater joy is found in giving rather than taking. This is one of life’s greatest secrets. This truth gives us a key to how we are actually built. This may seem to most people upside down, because it goes against everything our culture tells us about the key to happiness and success, but it is the consistent testimony of all who’ve tried it.
This is also a good guide to our practice of prayer. Perhaps we would receive more answers to prayer if we spent more time interceding for the needs and welfare of others and less on ourselves. What many have found is that if we live this type of cheerful, God-dependent, self-forgetfulness many of our needs and desires will be met in the process, even without asking.
So if you're grieving or in pain, how does this help you? It’s counter-intuitive, but true: our pain starts to heal when we invest our lives in the pain of others. When all our instincts tell us to hide somewhere and nurse our sorrow in solitude, the best medicine is to turn outward toward the brokenhearted around us and assist in helping them with their suffering. Try it—it works. And what enables us to get close to them and to truly care for (and feel) their pain is what we’re now going through.
Father, I’m unable to turn from my own pain to that of others unless you grant me the grace and power to do it. It’s not in me, so you must do it through me. Amen.