There’s more to say on what I started discussing last time about the Biblical definition of sacrifice.
Because we’ve grown used to the non-Biblical definition of sacrifice that I mentioned last time, we assume it comes from the Bible. When the Bible says to “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1), we may understand this as teaching that God desires that we should lose all pleasure and self-hood, as if our dis-pleasure were the goal. Instead, we should take this as a call to radical generosity towards God. The first teaches, “Do you like something? Then God probably wants you to get rid of it.” The second teaches, “Do you love God? Then love him radically, abundantly, generously, with everything that you have.”
What if spouses acted this way?
Imagine a husband saying to his wife, “I love you so much that I decided to show my love to you by burning down my house and driving my car off of a cliff. I love you so much that I walked five miles to work today in the dead of winter wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt. I knew it would hurt, but I wanted to do it to show how much I love you.” This is not love, it is lunacy!
A true loving husband says to his wife, “I love you so much that I’ve been thinking creatively all day about how I could bless you. I bought you flowers and a new diamond necklace. I had to sell my car and my house and my winter jacket to buy that necklace, but I don’t care, because I love you so much!” Love and generosity take no stock of the cost of their gift because they are enthralled with the object of their affection. Sleflessness, on the other hand, is always taking stock of how much it gives and how much it suffers.
This example of the “selfless” husband above sounds extreme – and it is. But not so extreme as to be implausible. Ever heard of Flagellantism? This was a movement in the middle ages (14th and 15th centuries) in which followers of God would whip and severely beat themselves in order to demonstrate their piety. They believed that God would be more pleased with them if they harmed themselves. (You can see echoes of this belief in the priest character in the movie “The Da Vinci Code”, or Nightcrawler in the second X-Men movie, who cut designs on his skin every time he sinned.) This is the horrific belief that God values our deprivation for its own sake taken to its logical conclusion. Considering how much time modern Westerners spend condemning “selfishness”, it’s not surprising that self-harm is on the rise again in our culture.
(I’m *not* saying that those who struggle with self-harm are doing it out of an attempt to please God. Rather, I’m trying to show that unhealthy and unbiblical views of ourselves can lead to damaging behavior. Self-contempt, devaluing the self, shame, and self-harm are all linked.)
True Sacrifice is Different
Sacrifice is a beautiful thing. But its beauty comes not from the fact that it takes away from the self; it’s beautiful because it gives to God! Talk of selflessness makes it sound as if we value self-deprivation more than abundant blessing of others. And this is not surprising, because self-deprivation is (ironically) a more self-oriented value. Focusing on the vice of selfishness and the virtue of selflessness is ironically a very self-absorbed thing to do.
But focusing on love and giving is very self-forgetful and humble. John Ortberg defines humility as “a healthy self-forgetfulness” – which is a very different thing from selflessness.