“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. Rather, he came to serve and to give his life as a ransom payment for many.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save her or his life will lose it. But whoever loses her or his life for me will find it.”
Therefore, in view of the mercies of God, I beg you, brothers and sisters, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to God, for this is your reasonable worship.
Sacrifice and the Gospel
Sacrifice is interwoven into the fabric of Christianity. Jesus gave his life in order to procure forgiveness for the human species. That sacrifice would have made no sense to his original followers except for the fact that they were already familiar with the concept of sacrifice from their previous religious experiences. And they saw sacrifice as an appropriate category for describing their ongoing devotion to Jesus (cf. 1 Peter 2:5).
So why is it that we modern Christians—me included—think that we can follow Jesus without giving up anything? After all, are we really better than our Lord (cf. Matthew 10:24-25) or his earliest disciples? Is our experience of Christ so sanitary and our experience of this world so satisfying that we really think we can get away without having to give something up?
Look, I get it. “Come and die with me” probably won’t be the most attractive evangelistic slogan. More importantly, we never want to neglect the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross or imply that we can somehow earn what we gain from Christ through meritorious acts of self-denial.
Still, it is hard to ignore the call to sacrifice in Scripture—to say nothing of the experience of sacrifice which is shared by Christ’s true followers. We give up things to be a follower of Jesus. We do it because we love him. We do it because we trust that many of the things Christ calls us to give up are bad for us. We do it because we have hope that our sacrifice will be redeemed—either in this life or in the age of the new heaven and the new earth.
More to the point, we give up our very lives. That means that we no longer see our own happiness—or even our own survival—as being our highest priority. We place our lives in God’s hands, and we direct whatever time, energy, resources, and talent that we have to doing God’s will (which often means that we use these things to improve the spiritual, physical, and social situation of others). We can make this sacrifice because we trust God to be faithful to His promises and to give us a life that is infinitely more (both temporally and qualitatively) than anything we can accomplish or imagine.
Sacrifice and Joy
So what is the relationship between this ethic of sacrifice and the joy that I have been writing about for the last two weeks? After all, sacrifice is not something that typically inspires fits of spontaneous exuberance. I readily confess that I do not have all of that worked out. It is something that God is still teaching me about. But I think that recognizing God’s goodness can help us endure the sacrifices that He calls us to make. As we walk with God, He asks us to give up some things, and some of the things that He asks us to give up are really hard. But, over time, we learn that God has a purpose for every sacrifice that He asks us to make. We also learn that God’s purposes are good—not just for His Kingdom, but also for us, His servants.
I also think that Peter Scazzero is right. Christ calls us to give up our lives, to crucify ourselves for His sake (cf. Galatians 5:24-26). But that does not mean we stop enjoying the good gifts of God. To the contrary, Paul calls us to meditate on the good things in life (Philippians 4:8). Reflecting on God’s good gifts (art, music, nature, friendship, romantic love, etc.) helps us to remember that God is not a sadistic slave-driver. He is a loving parent, and He can be trusted.
The Pain of Sacrifice and the Grace of God
Sacrifice hurts. There is no way around it. It is supposed to hurt. And every new sacrifice that God requires of us can seem like salt poured in a wound. For this reason, I can tell you with all confidence that I do not have all of this mastered. But I can also tell you that it is necessary. We follow Jesus. We take up our cross—figuratively and, if necessary, literally. And when we fail to do so, we fall upon the grace and the mercy of Jesus, and He gives us another chance.)