Donald Whitney on “Serving . . . for the Purpose of Godliness”


Ministering hearts are disciplined to labor,

for they regularly move beyond their comfort zones,

they put themselves in vulnerable spots, they make

commitments which cost, they get tired for Christ’s sake,

they pay the price, they encounter rough seas.

But their sails billow full of God’s Spirit.

Kent Hughes (141).

This is the sixth article in my series on Dr. Donald Whitney’s acclaimed classic, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. If you missed the earlier articles in this series, please follow this link and scroll to read them. Today I will provide a brief summary of Whitney’s chapter on the spiritual discipline of service, serving as a primer his excellent work. All of the quotations and pages references here are from the book.

Do you believe that Christian service should be glamorous? Back when I was first called to full-time ministry, I had a rather glossy vision of the Music Pastor’s role. If you are having similar thoughts regarding your calling to ministry, Hughes’ quotation above should help you understand the reality of pain and pleasure that accompanies godly service. As Whitney teaches:

To have served Jesus by walking with Him during His three-year ministry would have been a glorious adventure; to have served Him three years earlier as His sweeper and saw-sharpener in the carpenter’s shop wouldn’t have been as appealing . . . . That’s why serving must become a Spiritual Discipline (143).

True service, taking in the myriad of menial tasks that it often requires, means disciplining ourselves to overcome sloth and pride. We must battle our flesh in order to accomplish it (143). So what is most effective in vanquishing the flesh for this purpose? Whitney suggests there is a way to redirect our affections so that we aren’t always functioning from the standpoint of rigorous discipline: “Most of the time our service should spring simply from our love for God and love for others.” However, as the Spirit is always working against our flesh to transform us more into the image of Christ, discipline is often the means God uses to grow us in dependence upon Him (144).


None of God’s elect are given an invitation to laziness. Christ sacrificed himself, to “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Psalm 100:2 commands us to “serve the LORD with gladness” (144). As Deuteronomy 13:4 teaches, we should be moved to service flowing from a sincere desire to obey God. Therefore Whitney correctly asserts, “We sin when we refuse to serve God.” (145)

What else is expected to motivate us to serve God? We should be motivated by gratitude. Whitney cites I Samuel 12:24: “Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you” (145). We should also be motivated by gladness. Our glad service has multiple implications,

In the courts of ancient kings, servants were often executed for nothing more than looking sad in the service of the king . . . . That’s because you don’t mope or sulk when you serve a king. Not only does it give the appearance that you serve reluctantly, it also reveals your dissatisfaction with the way he’s running things (146-47).

When we serve with a sour attitude, we may honor the king with our lips, but we dishonor him with our heart (147). But Whitney doesn’t stop here. He instructs that we should also be motivated to serve God because we have received grace and forgiveness for sin (rather than serving from guilt); and we should serve out of humility. He encourages us to contemplate the prophet’s response in Isaiah 6, where we see him so urgently moved by God’s grace that he answers the Lord’s call with the cry, “Here I am! Send me” (147-48). Whitney cites the foot washing of John 13:12-16 as evidence of Jesus’s great humility in serving his friends. Paul calls the heart of service love, as “Christ’s love controls or constrains” us (Galatians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15) (150).


When we come to Christ for salvation, we are given at least one spiritual gift with which to serve. Whitney encourages us to learn what our gifts are by trying various avenues of service. But this process comes in addition to the study of Scripture. Passages us as Romans 12:4-8; I Corinthians 12:5-11, 27-31; and I Corinthians 14 help us in the process of discovery. Whitney reminds us that our innate talents will often line up with our set of spiritual gifts (151-52).

Using our gifts in service is work. We should note as Whitney teaches that “if for no other reason, serving God is hard work because it means serving people.” But we should be encouraged with this truth: “Service that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” The good news is that our service to God “is the most fulfilling and rewarding kind of work” available to us (154). Nothing satisfies like it. This is in part because it is “the most enduring kind of work” (155). Paul tells us in I Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” This is the only kind of work that will last forever (155-56).


As Whitney says, “Worship empowers serving” and “serving expresses worship.” If we are to serve or worship authentically, then the other of the two will always be present. And the order of these matters: “worship, then worship-empowered service.” Whitney highlights the clear pattern in Isaiah 6. It was Isaiah’s worship of God that prompted and fueled his service. True worship of God will always lead us to serve, and true service cannot be maintained in the Spirit without knowing God’s presence in worship—private and public (156).


In Luke 22:27 Jesus affirms his purpose as a servant. Joyfully, it is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ that “transforms sinners against God into servants of God.” One of the most reliable forms of evidence of true belief in the gospel is “that a new, Christ-like desire to serve begins to overcome the selfish desire to be served” (158). Indeed this is the glorious work of the gospel. We are not only saved from sin—we are saved to a new life realized in loving service. Don Whitney’s excellent book offers the tools you need to put yourself in the most favorable path for the Holy Spirit to move in and through your service—via practicing the spiritual disciplines.


Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.

Dennis, Lane T.; and Grudem, Wayne, eds. ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

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