How do we distinguish between "serving sacrificially" and "being subservient"? Or, as one commenter puts it: what's the difference between rendering sacrificial service and "being a doormat"?
I've only been in ordained ministry for five years, but this question has been asked of me many times. . .and only by women. It's likely I just need more experience, or maybe the women I've ministered to have been somehow particularly abused by a distorted notion of sacrifice. Either way, the question is a good one.
First, a few general observations. . .
+ All Christians are called to be servants. This means, minimally, that we are to be of good use to others, including family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. The OT prophets were especially emphatic about being hospitable to foreigners. Why? They are away from home, away from the day-to-day support they normally have among their own. In other words, they are critically vulnerable and in the most need of immediate help.
+ Anyone can be a servant. There is no religious test for being of good use to others. Atheists are perfectly capable of being of good service, even sacrificially so. However, Christians are not called to be servants just for the sake of service. We serve b/c we lay claim to being followers of Christ who served all mankind in his life, death, and resurrection. We serve for the greater glory of God. Christian service is what it is precisely b/c it is done in order to give thanks and praise to God.
+ When we serve others sacrificially, we serve in order to make them and ourselves holy. If my service is about making me look good in the parish, or to boost my public image before an election, or pad my resume for a tough job search, then the service cannot be sacrificial, even if tremendous good results from my work. The intention (willed direction) of my work must be to do nothing else but show God's love and mercy to the world. Any good service we render can be considered sacrificial if it is done for God's greater glory. This is made plain in the Little Way of St. Therese and Brother Lawrence. Washing dishes with your all your heart and mind focused on Christ can be a sacrifice.
+ The danger for Americans is to measure sacrifice in terms of "what is lost" and "what is gained" rather than in the quality of devotion invested in the work. Bill Smith can write a $25 billion check to a city's food bank and effectively feed millions of people. Sue Jones can work a Saturday afternoon at the Catholic Charities thrift store and help several families stretch their meager household budget. Smith "sacrifices" billions of dollars. Jones "sacrifices" an afternoon. Most Americans would say that Smith has sacrificed more than Jones. Not necessarily. Jones wills that her work bring greater and greater glory to God. She intents her work as a demonstration of Christ's love and mercy for the least of his. Smith writes a check b/c its a good tax write-off and it will get his picture in the paper before this year's mayoral election.
Now, having said all that, here's a very basic distinction between sacrifice and servitude: any good work done for the greater glory of God alone is sacrificial; work done for any reason other than this is may be servile.
But how do I discern which is which?
1). Why am I doing this work?
2). Is this work good?
3). Am I perfecting my gifts?
The first question challenges you to consider your reasons for undertaking the work. Here you have to plumb your heart and mind and honestly assess your motives. Am I doing this to build a good reputation? Am I doing this for attention? Is this work merely a duty that I must perform? Will others I am a bad person if I don't do it? Your only reason for giving sacrificial service is to give glory to God.
The second question challenges you to consider the work itself. Is the object of the work good, meaning is the end goal of the work good. Recently, a Dominican sister's work at an abortion clinic was made public. No doubt she feels that her work is good. But the object--the final end--of her work is to help women abort their children. There is very little good in this. Also, when helping others in person it's a good idea to consider the largest possible picture. While I served in Houston, we were frequently hit up by homeless folks for money at the priory. Helping the homeless is a paramount Christian concern. But giving cash to them is not the way to help them. They see cash donations as a form of help. But there's no reason for us to see it this way. Handing a homeless person a few dollars is a cheap and easy way to feel good about one's charity. It's certainly easier than spending a Saturday at the homeless shelter serving lunch! Just b/c the person who needs your help thinks that doing X is helpful doesn't make it helpful.
The third question challenges you to consider whether or not any particular service you might render also serves to perfect your unique gifts. 1 John tells us that when we use our gifts in the service of others, God's love is perfected in us. When God's love is perfected in us, we go on to serve more and more in and for His glory. I have no gifts in the area of logistics or planning. It would be a mistake for me to serve as a coordinator of relief services in a natural disaster. However, I function very well in a crisis. When something traumatic happens I become very calm and hyper-focused (a very unusual state for me!). This gift helped me work with psychiatric patients in a hospital setting. That job was one crisis after another.
So, serving as a doormat might mean that you are serving out of fear, misguided duty, guilt, or a need to please in order to receive approval. None of these is sacrificial. You might be serving someone who has defined "help" as doing what he/she wants you do even if they help they want isn't what they actually need in the long run. This kind of work might result in some good, but it will not likely be the best you can offer them. Remember: sometimes the best medicine hurts. You might be serving others by trying to make use of gifts you do not have. There's no grace for you to call on in these cases, no help from your own nature that gives you the means to do and be the best you can do and be.
If the service you are doing makes you feel like a doormat, makes you think of yourself as being taken advantage of, then follow these thoughts and feelings and stop. You aren't doing yourself or others much good. Be open to expanding your gifts but know your limits. The Church has many members precisely b/c none of us can everything well.
Hope this helps!