Culture

Christians: 'Sacrifice' Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Sacrifice

Catch up on this series’ previous installments: Part I: “Christianity’s Human Sacrifice Problem,” Part II: “Is Religion Illogical?” Part III: “Would Christians Object to Living Indefinitely Through Technology?,” Part IV: “Is Religion Compatible with Life on Earth?,” Part V: “Atheists Can Be Moral, Too” Part VI: “Morality Is Objective, and We Can Prove It

Given the term’s religious origins, it should be no wonder why “sacrifice” holds sacred status in our culture. Parents are lauded for the sacrifices they make on behalf of their children. Those who serve in the military, or in law enforcement, or those who risk their lives to put out fires — all are praised for the sacrifices they make for their community. We are persistently called to sacrifice in both public and private life. Policies have been sold by appealing to “what you can do for your country.”

This broad use of the term “sacrifice” fails to distinguish between two concepts which should not be confused with each other. Most of the above examples of “sacrifice” are actually profitable transactions where something of lesser value is given up in exchange for something of greater value. Contrasted to that, appeals to sacrifice in our political discourse frequently call for transactions where something of greater value is given up in exchange for something of lesser or no value.

To highlight this distinction, let’s work through a few examples.

A parent who gives up a trip to Paris or an expensive hobby so they can afford to send their children to private school is not giving up something of greater value for something of lesser value. They have determined in their judgment that the education of their children is a higher value than the vacation or hobby. Most parents do not resent their children as unjust drains upon their happiness.

A college student who gives up a night on the town with friends so they may study for a big test has not sacrificed something of greater value. They have determined in their judgment that their academic success is a higher value than the short-term pleasure of a night out. Most graduates clutching their diploma do not wish they had spent less time studying and more time drinking.

When we consider the role of a firefighter or a soldier, the calculus gets a little more complicated. But the principle remains the same. A firefighter who runs into a burning building does not do so with the intent to die, but with the intent to save. He assumes a risk, not because he deems his life of lesser value than the lives of others, but because he values life as such and seeks a world where those in danger are rescued.

Similarly, even in a scenario where soldiers are ordered to their deaths, they follow not because they want to die, but – with apologies to Mel Gibson – because they want to live. A world where evil is fought, where rights are preserved and liberty protected, offers a higher value than a life lived in slavery to tyrants. If one dies in pursuit of a life lived on their terms, it cannot be said that they sacrificed anything. The sacrifice would be to live in chains.

Indeed, what we really mean when we say that a solider or his family “sacrificed” for our freedom is that they exhibited virtue in pursuit of liberty. It seems unlikely that any particular soldier who has been killed in action had a total stranger in mind at the time and thought, “This is for you.” Rather, we at home stand as peripheral beneficiaries of the soldier’s pursuit of self-interest. He wants to live life on his terms, not on the terms of a tyrant. He wants his family and friends back home to be safe and to live free, and is willing to act accordingly. He’s willing to die if necessary, but death is not what he’s seeking.

The distinction here is between the pursuit of self-interest and the sacrifice of it. Many of the things we term “sacrifice” are actually rational pursuits of self-interest. Even when the pursuit risks or assures death, it’s still motivated by chosen life-affirming values. By contrast, real sacrifice is selfless in the sense that it betrays one’s values for the sake of something which isn’t a value. By conflating the two, we muddy the rhetorical waters, particularly in the political discourse.

When a politician comes to you pitching a new tax or restriction and sells it as a “sacrifice” for the sake of fill-in-the-blank, they are appealing to the sense of responsibility which compels you to prioritize your interests. They say such-and-such policy is “for the children.” You think about your children and what you’d be willing to do for them. The problem is, the policy isn’t limited to what you do with your resources for your children. Nor is it an appeal to charity wherein you choose to use your resources in support of a cause you favor. It is a call to sacrifice your values for those determined by others.

Indeed, to be truly altruistic, one cannot value the cause which they support. If you value the cause, then you’re just pursuing your own interest, and the altruists won’t give you any credit. This is, in part, why private charity is derided by leftists as an inadequate response the plight of the poor. If you only give to those you deem worthy, you’re discriminating against and neglecting those who need your help the most — those whom you do not deem worthy. It’s to these that you must sacrifice.

Now let us turn to the context of Christianity, where things get really interesting. If we accept this distinction between sacrifice and self-interested prioritization, what do we make of the sacrifices offered in the Bible? Were Abraham, or Moses, or Jesus Christ offering things of greater value in exchange for things of lesser value? Not if we actually believe what the Bible says.

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The Bible tells us that God’s purpose in creation was the rather Randian objective of self-glorification. He created us to glorify Him, to bring Him praise, to fulfill his will. It all sounds rather selfish, and that’s because it is. God is selfish. But He has every right to be. He’s God. There’s nothing greater, nothing higher, nothing beyond Him or outside Him. He’s it. It’s literally all about Him.

He’s also infinite, and it’s this divine quality which provides the essential context for understanding sacrifice in the Christian sense. The event at the center of Christianity, more significant than creation itself, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote of it, saying, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” The resurrection is everything. It’s God’s signature move. It’s the means by which He demonstrated to the world that He was who He said He was. What it said, if you’ll pardon the colloquial paraphrase, is, “Look, there’s no end to me. I can lay my life down and pick it right back up again. I can’t be spent. I can’t be lost. I can’t be consumed or diminished. I’m eternal. I’m forever.”

In that context, sacrifice becomes irrelevant. There’s nothing you can give that God cannot replace, including your very life. Further, the pursuit of God – the Ultimate and Eternal Resource – is the pursuit of eternal life. Oh, and eternal life, that’s in your self-interest.

There is therefore no sacrifice involved in following Christ, not in the sense of giving up a greater value for a lesser one. Any transaction wherein God is gained proves profitable.

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The importance of this theological notion for Christians cannot be overstated. Far too often, the church falls prey to the belief that we must be “sacrificial.” To the extent that we mean Christians should prioritize God and the eternal life and joy He provides, we are correct. But if we think there’s some merit in begrudgingly giving up something we value more than God, we’re kidding ourselves. If we think we’re earning heaven points by depriving ourselves, then we don’t really understand the Gospel.

When Jesus talked about the man who found a pearl of great price and buried it in a field, then sold all he had to buy the field, he wasn’t telling a story of sacrifice. He was telling a story about the recognition and pursuit of value. He was saying, again paraphrasing, “I am the pearl. I am the greater value. Recognize that value and give priority to me.”

The problem here is a semantic one. The word “sacrifice” is used to communicate significantly different concepts in different contexts (perhaps a failing of the English language). As a result, we proceed confused in both our politics and our theology. Life isn’t served by giving up values. It’s served by pursuing them. And prioritizing greater values over lesser ones is both rational and divinely selfish.

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