The Pony Express was a private express company that carried mail by an organized relay of horseback riders. The eastern end was St. Joseph, Missouri, and the western terminal was in Sacramento, California. The cost of sending a letter by Pony Express was $2.50 an ounce. If the weather and horses held out and the Indians held off, that letter would complete the entire two-thousand-mile journey in a speedy ten days, as did the report of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address.
It may surprise you that the Pony Express was only in operation from April 3, 1860, until November 18, 1861—just seventeen months. When the telegraph line was completed between two cities, the service was no longer needed.
Being a rider for the Pony Express was a tough job. You were expected to ride seventy-five to one hundred miles a day, changing horses every fifteen to twenty-five miles. Other than the mail, the only baggage you carried contained a few provisions, including a kit of flour, cornmeal, and bacon. In case of danger, you also had a medical pack of turpentine, borax, and cream of tartar. In order to travel light and to increase speed of mobility during Indian attacks, the men always rode in shirtsleeves, even during the fierce winter weather.
How would you recruit volunteers for this hazardous job? An 1860 San Francisco newspaper printed this ad for the Pony Express: “WANTED: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk daily. Orphans preferred.”
Those were the honest facts of the service required, but the Pony Express never had a shortage of riders.
We need to be honest with the facts about the Discipline of serving God. Like the Pony Express, serving God is not a job for the casually interested. It’s costly service. He asks for your life. He asks for service to Him to become a priority, not a pastime. He doesn’t want servants who will give Him the leftovers of their life’s commitments. Serving God isn’t a short-term responsibility either. Unlike the Pony Express, His Kingdom will never go under, no matter how technological our world gets.
The mental picture we have of the Pony Express is probably much like the one imagined by the young men of 1860 who read that newspaper ad. Scenes of excitement, camaraderie, and the thrill of adventure filled their heads as they swaggered over to the Express office to apply. Yet few of them envisioned that excitement would only occasionally punctuate the routine of the long, hard hours and loneliness of the work.
The Discipline of serving is like that. Although Christ’s summons to service is the most spiritually grand and noble way to live a life, it is typically as pedestrian as washing someone’s feet. Richard Foster puts it starkly: “In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel, than His word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we are banished to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”1
The ministry of serving may be as public as preaching or teaching, but more often it will be as sequestered as nursery duty. It may be as visible as singing a solo, but usually it will be as unnoticed as operating the sound equipment to amplify the solo. Serving may be as appreciated as a good testimony in a worship service, but typically it’s as thankless as washing dishes after a church social. Most service, even that which seems the most glamorous, is like an iceberg. Only the eye of God ever sees the larger, hidden part of it.
Beyond the church walls, serving is baby-sitting for neighbors, taking meals to families in flux, running errands for the homebound, providing transportation for the one whose car breaks down, feeding pets and watering plants for vacationers, and—hardest of all—having a servant’s heart in the home. Serving is as commonplace as the practical needs it seeks to meet.
That’s why serving must become a Spiritual Discipline. The flesh connives against its hiddenness and sameness. Two of the deadliest of our sins—sloth and pride—loathe serving. They paint glazes on our eyes and put chains on our hands and feet so that we don’t serve as we know we should or even as we want to. If we don’t discipline ourselves to serve for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom (and for the purpose of Godliness), we’ll “serve” only occasionally or when it’s convenient or self-serving. The result will be a quantity and quality of service we’ll regret when the Day of Accountability for our service comes.
In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard says rightly that not all serving will, or even should be, disciplined serving. However, those who want to train themselves for Christlike spirituality will find it one of the surest and most practical means of growth in grace.
Not every act that may be done as a discipline need be done as a discipline. I will often be able to serve another simply as an act of love and righteousness, without regard to how it may enhance my abilities to follow Christ. There certainly is nothing wrong with that, and it may, incidentally, strengthen me spiritually as well. But I may also serve another to train myself away from arrogance, possessiveness, envy, resentment, or covetousness. In that case, my service is undertaken as a discipline for the spiritual life.
But lest we begin to think that serving is merely an option, let’s chisel this into the cornerstone of our Christian life:
EVERY CHRISTIAN IS EXPECTED TO SERVE
When God calls His elect to Himself, He calls no one to idleness. When we are born again and our sins forgiven, the blood of Christ cleanses our conscience, according to Hebrews 9:14, in order for us to “serve the living God!” “Serve the LORD with gladness” (Psalm 100:2, NASB) is every Christian’s commission. There is no such thing as spiritual unemployment or spiritual retirement in the Kingdom of God.
Whitney, Donald S. 1991. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
We have just completed a 13-Part Study of Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon