It happened again.
I was standing in church wrangling four kids when a well-meaning lady commented, “God bless your family for what you’re doing for those kids.” I looked up at her briefly and then back at my kids (two of which were transracially adopted). I knew immediately that she was praising our involvement in adoption.
Over the last few years, we’ve come to learn just how harmful a savior narrative can be. Not just to our kids but to ourselves too. People thanking us for adopting can cause our children to wonder, “What’s so wrong with me that my parents need to receive thanks for loving me?!” And we, the parents, can quickly become prone to pride and an inflated sense of self.
A savior complex causes someone to take on the role of God rather than recognize our deep need for him. It distorts our view of who God is and who we are in Christ. And it damages our relationship with fellow image-bearers. And yet the Bible is clear that Christians are called to a life of service to others.
Called to Serve
There are many needs in our communities where the church can be a bright light by bringing the good news of Jesus in both word and deed. Scripture calls us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). James 1:27 says that true and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows and to keep ourselves unstained by the world. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that God created us in Christ Jesus for good works. And in Jeremiah 29:7, we’re told to seek the welfare of the cities where the Lord has us.
So as a people who are called to serve others, how do we serve without developing a savior complex?
Philippians 2 gives us a good roadmap for this, showing us how to live lives spent for the sake of the gospel and the good of others while remaining humble with a right view of our service.
Remember our need for a Savior
First, we must always keep our personal and collective need for a Savior at the forefront of our stories. It’s difficult to get a savior complex when serving “the least of these” if you fully understand that you too are “the least of these.” And it’s hard to be the hero of the story when you remember your need for our ultimate hero: Jesus.
Philippians 2:5–7 says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (emphasis added).
If we have eyes fixated on a Savior who didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, we too can strive to be his hands and feet here on earth without replacing his role as Savior. We come with good news, willing to serve, not as saviors but as fellow brothers and sisters who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and we can’t refrain from sharing his goodness with others.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition
Believers are called to serve others with eyes fixed on Jesus and hearts that have been changed by him. But we are also called to do nothing from selfish ambition—this includes serving others (Phil. 2:3–4). That means we never lift ourselves up on the backs of the people we serve. We don’t visit the imprisoned, adopt or foster, serve the marginalized in our community, or teach a Sunday school class in a way that makes us look like the hero. Rather, like Christ, we are to be humble and consider others more important than ourselves.
What does this look like pragmatically? Well, that person you might consider a ministry project is a fellow image-bearer in Christ who you should consider more highly than you consider yourself. Their interests and their well-being should be wrapped up in your well-being. Rather than reaching down to help someone up, we lock arms in solidarity with people and walk beside them as fellow brothers and sisters, not experts who have their acts together. We live out our faith in community with them rather than separated out as helpers or heroes.
Bright lights in a dark world
We live in a world where sin taints everything—even good things. We find our hearts tempted to build our own kingdoms even while obeying commandments in Scripture. I fight this battle in my own heart regularly. But again, Philippians 2 offers good counsel:
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (Phil. 2:14–16, emphasis added).
Sin taints everything. But despite the brokenness we face, we hold fast to the Word of life and shine as bright lights in a dark world. We serve not to shine light on ourselves, but because it shines light on the good news of Jesus. And when we remember our call to serve, remember our personal need for a great Savior, and do nothing out of selfish ambition and conceit, we are free to serve in a way that not only honors others, but points them to our one true Savior: Jesus.
Meet the Author
Brittany Salmon is a professor, writer, and Bible teacher. She has a MA in Intercultural Studies from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a MA in Teaching from North Carolina State University, and is currently pursuing her doctorate from Southeastern Seminary where she is doing research on racial representation in Christian children's literature. Brittany is passionate about taking theology and applying it to everyday lives. And yet the people closest to her think of her as the friend who loves oversized sweatpants and a great conversation over coffee. She lives in Abilene, Texas with her best friend, Ben, and their four children. You can connect with Brittany on Instagram @brittanynsalmon.