If the Servant Sets You Free

“Hey bro,” I whispered to my teammate on the train, “look at that guy.”

Slumped across two seats, the man drifted into slumber as his ticket fluttered from his fingers to the floor. At 10pm, he was out for the count.

Based on his black suit and briefcase, we figured the K.O. must have come from his company. Perhaps a good 12 rounds (hours) today, followed by another 12 tomorrow. However tired we were from our two weeks of ministry in the countryside, this guy was more.

“Maybe he’ll wake up somewhere in Tochigi to the tap of a train operator,” I thought.

Then suddenly, he sprung up at the next stop, retrieved his ticket, and dashed out just before the doors closed. It was as if some internal alarm notified him of his station. Our jaws dropped…wider than the guy’s when he was sleeping.

“What could drive a person to live like this?” I asked myself.

As a 19-year-old college student on my first short-term missions trip to Japan, I didn’t know what career path I was headed for. But one thing I was sure of: I didn’t want to be like that guy.

11 years later, I couldn’t help but recall that episode as I stood on a Tokyo train, suited up with briefcase in hand. Headed to my first job interview, I was about to become him. Not because I envied him. But because I needed to understand him, as a missionary.

What I didn’t realize, was that the same thing that drove him, was already driving me.

Working for Worth

Japanese culture is contagious. Just ask your Hello Kitty-loving daughter or ramen-addict friend. It sticks to you, like your shirt on a humid Tokyo summer day. Even the English you once laughed at, seeps into your vocabulary and spills out of your mouth. I certainly don’t trust mine grammar anymore. (Ok, that was intentional.)

Japanese work culture is no different. Their ethic impresses and their excellence inspires. Anyone who has held a Canon 5D (or NikonD850) camera, stayed at a ryokan, or even had their order taken at a McDonalds would echo an “amen”.

But like a starving salaryman in a ramen shop, it can slurp you up and swallow you whole. It can drive you to stay in the office until the last train and get you back on it before the rising sun. It can have you sacrifice family and health on its altar. Why?

Because for most in Japan, work is your identity. It’s the first thing you show people on your business card when introducing yourself. It’s your worth, how you prove yourself to society.

No wonder that many pastors here skip their sabbaths, refuse to take retreats, and sprinkle their sermons with stories of how hard they’re working. They preach justification by faith, yet model justification by work.

This cultural contagion that permeates the air of many pulpits isn’t just a “success syndrome”. It’s identity amnesia, as Paul Tripp calls it — forgetting what defines us. And I too, wake up with its symptoms every morning.

Trading our Titles

Truth is, I’m no different from that sleeping man on the train from 15 years ago. Call it identity, significance, greatness, or even glory — my heart craves it, and work is my weapon to get it. Only the Word of Christ can disarm me.

When Jesus spells out the cure to this ancient addiction, he never curses the desire for glory and greatness; he corrects the path.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, ESV)

Jesus is the way, and his way is to serve. If I am a follower of Christ, I’ve been given a new business card. And the title by my name now reads, “Servant of Christ.” No other identity will…well, “work.”


Serve, though no others may nod or notice
Serve, in His might, other masters forsaken
Serve, as His light, when His love draws you lower
Serve, for His sake, and all work shall be sacred

Jesus “emptied himself” to set us free from “man’s empty praise.” And if the Servant sets you free, you are free indeed.


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  • Miyako Tachibana says:

    I find striving to be a worthy servant of God and striving to be holy can be exhausting.
    Then I turn to Matthew 11:28-30 “….for my yoke is easy to bear and the burden I
    give you is light.” I am a receiver of grace for He has done all the work.

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