While on family vacations growing up, my sister and I would inevitably run out of games to play in the back of our Chevy Astro minivan. Out of sheer boredom, one of us would start singing the Beach Boys summer hit “Sloop John B.” This would set off a musical call-and-response between us to protest the forced family fun that typically ended with a wild embellishment of the chorus: “Why don’t they let me go home? / This is the worst trip / Bah, bah, dah / I’ve ever been on!”
Since that time, my sister and I have confessed to our parents that those trips not only helped us grow closer together but were quite meaningful and taught us important life lessons.
Similarly, at first blush, the idea of compulsory service—like forced family fun—seems to be somewhat of an oxymoron. After all, how can people’s service be authentic if they lack the desire and are being forced into it? Yet, as my experience with family vacations demonstrates, the act of getting involved can often transform the hearts and minds of even the most unwilling participants.
Compulsory service a contradiction?
Increasingly, community service is becoming part of mainstream North American culture, and this means that it’s being incorporated into diverse arenas of life. Today, judges can sentence defendants to community service for petty crimes, and businesses support charitable organizations in the hopes of creating a positive image with consumers.
However, not all forms of involuntary service are punitive or lucrative in nature. For example, many students—all the way from elementary to college-age—in Canada and the U.S. must participate in service-learning experiences in order to successfully complete course requirements.
And if you think about it, Christ’s instruction for us to love our neighbors as ourselves is not called the “Second Great Suggestion” but the “Second Great Commandment.” As Christians, we are required by God to serve, not just during isolated, one-time instances, but with our entire lives.
Mandatory service might at first seem like a paradox, yet even the Bible prescribes it as part of the walk of a faithful Christ-follower.
Actions vs. attitude
But what about the tension that seems to be present any time someone feels forced to serve because they have to as opposed to serving because they want to?
I would say that this isn’t unique to service. There have been many times when I didn’t feel like going to church and have questioned the importance of participating in seemingly empty rituals of worship. Yet often, it is in the daily practice of the spiritual disciplines—whether or not I feel like doing them—that my faith has been renewed and I’ve developed deeper, more mature convictions about what I actually believe.
Perhaps that is why Jesus called His disciples to follow Him before they fully understood what the journey would entail. Throughout the biblical story, it’s clear that understanding the command to serve doesn’t precede obeying it. In fact, it’s quite possible that we can’t fully comprehend or develop a passion for service until we become active participants by serving others and allowing others to serve us.
Now, this doesn’t mean that one’s actions count for everything and one’s heart doesn’t matter. The Pharisees, for instance, are famous for outwardly doing all the “right things” but having minds and attitudes that rebelled against God. In Matthew 23, Jesus tells them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
God does look at our hearts. But we must recognize that what we do influences our inner state, and vice versa. And so, we serve to both demonstrate and cultivate love in our hearts.
Becoming the change
Parker Palmer, a master adult educator, has said, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living, you live your way into a new kind of thinking.” Studies have shown that students who participate in mandatory service-learning develop a better understanding of themselves, become more empathetic, increase their awareness of social justice issues, and statistically commit themselves to future civic leadership, charitable giving, and political engagement in larger numbers than their non-volunteering counterparts.
More articles on the debate over compulsory compassion:
Aside from these social benefits, service-learning also facilitates growth in one’s spiritual life. Even when mandatory and done with a poor attitude, service can bring about transformation—in others, in society, and in ourselves. Micah 6:8 instructs us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. As we pursue those callings, we might actually experience healing in our own broken hearts and corrupted minds. Understood in this way, involuntary service becomes not about quelling God’s punitive wrath or satisfying course requirements; rather, it becomes a way that God uses to work within and among us to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit and bring about reconciliation as we become more Christ-like.
When we make ourselves available to God as did characters like Jonah, Abraham, Rehab, Paul, and Job, He is able to work in us—and at times in spite of us—to accomplish His work in this world.