What comes to mind when you hear the word sacrifice? Its original meaning is steeped with mystery and thoughts of animals, altars and temples. Contemporarily, this term has come simply to mean giving something up for some greater purpose. Diets, exercise, less alcohol, working longer hours. We make sacrifices in order to be healthy or to provide for our families. Sometimes we sacrifice things we like because it seems to be the right thing to do. We think to ourselves, If we are giving up something that will yield a positive result, it is a worthy sacrifice or good trade. In fact, the very definition of a sacrifice, in this context, is the act of giving up something valued for something considered more important or worthy. If we are giving up some delightful food in order to shed pounds and increase our lifespan, this is a worthy sacrifice, right? If the end goal in actuality does exceed the immediate pleasure or reward, it would only seem logical to pursue that course of action. But is that all there is to sacrifice? A simple equation in which we measure the outcome of an action? If the reward is greater than the temporal pleasure, we pursue the reward?
There is certainly some merit in looking at sacrifice in this manner. But in reality, we are rarely able to give up temporal pleasures in order to pursue a more distant benefit that would eventually result from this sacrifice. Fleeting, transitory pleasures are often some of the most enticing. The desire to consume a dessert in front of you far outweighs your desire for long life or health. The pornography tempting you, at least in that moment, far outweighs your desire for righteousness before God or faithfulness to your spouse. The immediacy of lust outweighs the pursuit of a happy, lifelong marriage. Why is it that humanity struggles so profoundly with these temporal, fleeting sins? Perhaps it is because they are fleeting. It isn’t as if we wake up one morning and decide to undertake a lifelong pursuit of some grand sin. It’s quite rare to hear someone say they are striving to commit adultery as many times as possible in the next fifety years of marriage or to lie and deceive as often as possible. However, the inverse is almost always true. We undertake a grand cause for righteousnesses sake, with a particular end in mind. And in these pursuits, we make what we term sacrifices in order to achieve those ends. The gentleman who indulges in unfaithfulness gives up his unfaithfulness. The liar strives for truthfulness. The adulterer seeks restoration. The glutton gives up dessert and the alcoholic gives up drinking. They make “sacrifices” in order to pursue righteousness.
Perhaps it is the very notion of what comprises a sacrifice that so often catches us up. If we are to perceive the sin we are leaving behind as something sacrificial, I think we are entirely on the wrong track, and will inevitably fall victim to those terrible temporal sins; those sins that are not planned out or afforded some honor, but take place in the moment. The alcoholic or drug addict perceives he is sacrificing something by reducing or eliminating substances from his life. The promiscuous individual perceives abandoning their promiscuity as a sacrifice. Herein lies our fundamental issue. To revert back for a moment to our equation, we can see that the end outweighing the temporal pleasure is more often than not to please God. Perhaps it is sometimes built out of a fear of eternal damnation. There are, I’m sure, other catalysts as well. Our innate sense of morality singes the conscious when these fleeting, sinful pleasures become evident in our lives. We know they are wrong, and see the long term benefit of abandoning them. We see the benefit of making a sacrifice in this regard.
What if I were to suggest that, to give up these fleeting pleasures, synonymous with sin, was actually no sacrifice at all? What if our very perception of sacrifice has been skewed? When we decide to sacrifice something, we bemoan eliminating that device from our life. We anguish over its loss. Recall that the definition of sacrifice is to give up something of value. For it to be a sacrifice it had to have value in the first place. Let’s look at it another way. God, being omniscient, decided to erect certain fences in certain places. God informed us of where these fences were to be erected, and instructed us to heed the purpose of the fence; namely, to keep us out. Now, humanity was fully aware of the placement of these fences. They were no secret. However, in our arrogance, we decided to climb over these fences, and, in some cases, to tear down these fences. The fundamental error in tearing down these fences is to forget about the fact that they were erected for a very specific purpose. A fence should never be torn down prior to considering its original purpose. Yet, in a hubristic forfeiture of wisdom, humanity ignores or rips down these fences in blatant defiance. We may tear these fences down, but it is not without repurcussions. We tear these fences down only to erect them again or to promise their restoration. I think we feel entirely better when the promise of their restoration is on the near horizon.
To reiterate, we begrudgingly resurrect fences, or whimsically hop back over to the other side of the fence. We “sacrificially” do so. Recall that to sacrifice is to give something of value for something considered more important or worthy. The problem is when we place these vices on a sacrificial pedestal, we inadvertently increase the value of being on the wrong side of the fence. The grass over there appears greener, so to speak. And, subsequently, we decrease the value of the correct side of the fence. Now, in pursuing this analogy further, I would suggest that to remain on the proper side of the fence, or to return to that proper side, we are not, in fact, making a sacrifice at all. Recall that these fences were erected for a specific purpose, and done so by God, the creator of the universe.
A farmer erects a fence for the specific purpose of keeping his animals in or out of some other geographic location. The farmer places barbed wire along miles and miles of highway in order to prevent his cattle from wandering into the highway to their demise. Is the cow making a sacrifice by not wandering into the highway? Perhaps the cow, with his little intelligence, stands at the fence and wishes, day after day, that he could cross the fence and get to the highway. He sees other cattle speed by on trucks, and wishes, with all of his heart, that he too could get past the fence and enjoy life on the other side of the fence. He begrudges the farmer and wonders at his malice in preventing his pleasure. Now, we observers realize the precarious situation any cow wandering a highway or on a slaughter truck is in. The farmer also realizes this and thus erected the fence for the cows own well-being. If the cow realized all of this, he wouldn’t begrudge the farmer for depriving him of this pleasure, which is in reality no pleasure at all. If you haven’t guessed, we are the cow in this scenario.
It is apparent that the cow was not, in fact, making any sacrifice at all by staying on the intended side of the fence. I would submit that we too, are not making any sacrifice at all by maintaining the boundaries that God has prescribed for us. Perhaps fleeting pleasures may entice us, but certainly to our detriment. If not now, then sometime in the near future. And we, being made in the image of God, possess the capacity to realize this but still often pursue the other side of the fence. But what if we were to reorient our thinking entirely? What if we were to decide that true sacrifice is enshrined in the cross, and has nothing to do with giving up some loathsome, fleeting pleasure? What if we arrived at the precise conclusion that sacrifice means to help one another in a selfless manner? What if we realized that to give up sin was not a sacrifice at all, but is rather a blessing? To live a blessed life in accordance with God’s will is no sacrifice at all, but a life truly worth living.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV
By definition, if we give up some sin to serve God, we are not making a sacrifice. To the contrary, we are giving up something containing no value for something of infinite value. We are moving from one degree of glory to another. We are being transformed into the image of Christ. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Christ was the sacrifice of which we benefit. He deemed us as being valuable enough to merit such a salvation. This incredible fact, coupled with the holy spirit, is the reason the flesh must decrease and the glory of God increase.
I will end simply by saying that God is worth it. We are not making a sacrifice when giving up some vice. To serve God is a joy beyond understanding. Only when we realize this, when we quit begrudging the forfeiture of the flesh, will we be able to move from one degree of glory to another.