What’s the difference between helping and serving?

 In Cambodia, East Asia Insight, Featured Stories, God at Work, Location, Serving Asia Magazine

By Simon and Judy Collins, Cross Cultural Workers with OMF. Simon is the Cambodian Field Medical Advisor and Judy is the Cambodian Child Safety Officer with a role on the Board of Hope International School.


Before we left for our first term in Cambodia, we had many people comment on our coming ‘adventure’, ‘great experience’, or that we would be much ‘help’ over there. These words do describe part of our time in Cambodia, but, like carefully curated photos on Facebook, they are not a full or sufficient representation of our life the last few years.

Our family of five arrived in Phnom Penh in August 2018 and had a six-month period of preparation to focus on learning the language and way of life in Cambodia. There was so much to process in these first few months – a new and diverse team of people to work with, incomprehensible language, strange foods, new ways of doing things, suicidal traffic. In a way we became like toddlers again struggling with simple communication and basic daily tasks. I remember the effort it took to simply express to a store owner that I needed a gas bottle replacement, or to cart our kids around the city in a tuk-tuk in 40 degree heat, or even just to find food that everyone in the family would eat. Things that were little effort in NZ were suddenly difficult and draining.

As we struggled with our competence in navigating even the basics of this new world, we came to realize how much our identity was tied up with independence, professional jobs, and generally successful lives in NZ. It is a humbling thing to find yourself wondering ‘if we are not the capable self-sufficient people we thought we were, who are we?’.

I thought I knew one thing though: when I start my role as Field Medical Advisor, I would again become the expert who fixes the problems of those around him. As it turned out, in the first year and a half of my work as Field Medical Advisor, I was confronted with a disproportionately high number of difficult medical-related issues, a dengue fever epidemic, the very sad death of Wonil, our co-worker and friend, and then COVID-19. Many team members were physically, emotionally, and mentally hurting during this period and I often struggled to be of help in a difficult-to-navigate Cambodian healthcare context.

Through the events and experiences of the last few years, I have come to realise there is a difference between ‘helping’ and ‘serving’. When I first arrived, I wanted to ‘help’ God, in the sense that I wanted to offer my capable self to add to what God was doing in Cambodia and in the lives of the team through my work. But the events that unfolded and the draining nature of learning to live in Cambodia often put me in a position where I had not much to give. Instead, God has shown me a little of the way of ‘serving’ him. I have been humbled and needy so that if I was to accomplish anything, it was only with his sustenance, direction, and grace.

But, there was adventure and joy too! Seeing young Cambodian doctors crying as they commune with God at a Christian retreat, witnessing the majestic building of the Angkor kingdom at Angkor Wat, receiving the smile of a Cambodian mother after they brought their child back to see us from the lifesaving surgery we rushed them to, and witnessing the happiness of our children who built amazing friendships with the children living around us. In God’s goodness he leads us in experiences that both humble and uplift us.

Philippians 2:5-11 gives us a template for humble service based on Christ’s own experience as he emptied himself and became a servant.  Please pray he will continue to teach and lead us all to greater Christlikeness.


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