I have sat in the pew and heard all my life that Christians are to sacrifice themselves in the living out of their daily lives. Christian radio said, “Sacrifice yourself. Surrender yourself.” Christian books said, “Don’t shrink from the pain this may cause you.” Christian conferences said, “Pour out your life.” Bible study leaders, using big-name Christian packaged materials said, “Surrender your rights.”
(But just to thicken the fog of confusion, they would always throw in, “Now… I’m not saying that you should be a doormat…” I could never figure out how to walk that tightrope.)
Big-name preachers tell you to pray more. In a specially-made, custom closet, if you really want God’s blessings to flow. If you have to add onto your home to fit it in, that will really seal the deal with God. Submit more. Fast more. Give up things you like more — like your favorite foods, TV shows, hobbies, sports, activities. Sacrifice your time, your money, and like I’ve said in another blog, your children. My former pastor even directed that you lay your family’s heirloom jewelry in the offering plate. Then you would see the windows of heaven open and blessings would pour out upon your head. Your cup would overflow. This is what I was taught.
I have read many devotionals that say pretty much these same things over and over. For one example, Joni Eareckson Tada writes in her devotional Diamonds in the Dust (1),
“I picture myself on the altar, and as soon as God strikes the match to light the flame of some fiery ordeal, I do what any living sacrifice would do. I crawl off the altar! … Please don’t argue with the Lord about how heavily He stokes the fire of your trial. Just get back up on the altar. It’s your spiritual worship!”
Also from the same book in a devotional authoritatively called God’s Will for Your Life (2),
“We can know the will of God in a general sense, for God’s will is that we be saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive, and suffering. God’s Word makes all this clear.”
She then goes on to quote Dr. John MacArthur when he says,
“If those five elements of God’s will are operating in your life, who is running your wants (your desires, your life)? God is!”
So… They say, if I was suffering, then I was in God’s will. He would be happy with me. Blessings would come. However…
I didn’t have the courage at the time to admit, even to myself, that I didn’t like this God. He wasn’t any different from any other abuser I had in my life — causing and enjoying my suffering at His pleasure. But… God is God, right? And God is love. Being God, He gets to define what love is. Hurting me didn’t fit my definition of love, but, like they say, He’s the boss. (They like to use the Christian-ese “sovereign.”) “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways,” they quote. So if I suffer, it makes Him happy. And that’s God’s love. That’s what I was taught.
So as my life twisted and contorted in a nightmare of abuse, I did what I was taught –what was hammered into my soul. It was all I ever knew. I sacrificed myself. I surrendered myself. I surrendered my rights. I prayed. I fasted. I wept. All this would make God happy, right? I stayed, which sacrificed my mental and physical health, my well-being. And regretfully, I for a long time, I sacrificed the safety and soul-well-being of my children.
And I waited. I waited for those heavenly windows to open. I waited for the change to happen in my husband/abuser. I prayed constantly for the lightbulb to appear over his head — the one that would indicate that he finally understood, “Wait! I have been intolerably mean and cruel. This is not good! This is not right! This is not what the God I claim to serve would want. From now on, I need to be kind, loving, gentle, and Christ-like!” I waited on the Lord, like a good, little, Christian girl. For over twenty years. I waited.
But the change never came. Those heavenly windows stayed shut.
So I left.
However, intimidation started ramping up from my then-husband. So I went to the battered women’s shelter, and they helped me file a protective order.
Then, that same day, as I received “Biblical” nouthetic counseling (ugh! Don’t get me started!), a pastor angrily broke into my counseling session. He threw down a piece of paper in front of me. He said it was the phone number for the sheriff’s office, and ordered me to call it. He ordered me to have my protective order lifted immediately! He was essentially ordering me to sacrifice my safety and my children’s safety all over again. Why? Because the church leaders wanted and needed my abuser to come to church and continue to lead the children’s ministry! That night!
I had been so well trained, and I was so desperate for approval at the time that I complied. Thank God that He had placed a judge in our court system that understood abusers. The judge ordered that it stand. He had also ordered that the level of protection was set higher than what I had originally asked for because of the type of threats my abuser had made against me and my children!
The church then told me to sacrifice our ability to attend my home church so that the abuser would be able to continue leading the children’s ministry. So we stayed home. Then, I found out months later that our abuser couldn’t legally attend the church because of the judge’s orders. We were supposed to be free to attend and move about in our regular places. But the church never told us that he couldn’t attend and that we could. So we were told to sacrifice any ability to reach out to our church community in our most trying time.
A New Perspective
Now, I am examining microscopically those beliefs that held me in bondage all my life.
Does it make God happy to see me suffer?
I found that He says in His Word,
For if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness. For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men. Lamentations 3:32-33
I called on Your name, O Lord, out of the lowest pit. You have heard my voice, “Do not hide Your ear from my prayer for relief, from my cry for help.” You drew me near when I called on You; You said, “Do not fear!” Lamentations 3:55-57
So, does it make God happy to see me suffer? No. God wants to draw us near.
If what I’d been taught all along says that my suffering does make Him happy, then… Why doesn’t it work? Why don’t our sacrifices make Him happy? The answer is always the same. Jesus Christ. The cross. His Word says,
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed. Isaiah 53:4-5
Jesus paid it all (an oldie hymn line, but a goodie!). On the cross, Jesus took our shame –our deep embarrassment over what we’ve done — our failures, our sins, our misery, our guilt. Jesus, God Himself, was scourged, beaten, and crucified in His human body to take our penalty. Therefore, when we gratefully accept Jesus’s death and resurrection as payment in full for us, God puts His goodness, His right standing, His good deeds, His perfection on our account. When He looks at us, God the Father sees His perfect Son and all of His perfect works. So however perfect Jesus was, (perfectly perfect!) that’s how perfect we now are to God.
So why do the big-name church preachers and leaders call us to sacrifice ourselves? Stay on the altar? Keep suffering under the hand of abusers?
If Jesus the Son’s sacrifice was complete and overwhelmingly acceptable to God His Father as payment in full, then wouldn’t the call to sacrifice yourself be trying to add to the finished, complete work of Christ? Wouldn’t the preachers be saying to God, “Listen, I know it was the death of Your own Son and all; but sorry, I’m saying that was not enough. I’m going to continue preaching that people must continue suffering on purpose to try to make You happy.”
If we must continue to sacrifice ourselves, then why did Christ have to die? If we could somehow earn God’s favor, then what was the point of the cross? Some sort of cosmic safety net to try to catch those who didn’t earn favor well enough here on earth? A get-out-of-hell-free card in case we’re not doing well enough at life? May it never be!
It’s a slap in the face to God, who generously provided the way to peace with Him. By giving up His Son. And to Jesus, Who gave His life in a horrific death to purchase that peace.
So, if we are not supposed to earn God’s favor by suffering on purpose, then what do we do with the bad things that happen to us in this world? These are the sufferings James talks about in his first chapter.
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4
Again, these are trials that you can’t get out of. That diagnosis. That court ruling. That job loss. It doesn’t make you holier– there’s no merit — to stay in a bad situation if you could get out of it. Christ’s work was enough. Paid in full. If there’s a way out, take it.
Does God use the suffering that this broken world dishes out to draw me to Him? Yes. We come again and again to the Father, to Jesus, and to the Holy Spirit who did everything for us, gave us all gifts in the spiritual realm, including peace with Him, and Heaven itself.
Does anything, including the abuse I’m suffering, escape His notice? No. Does it get by Him? Does the abuser “slip one past” the Almighty? No. Judgment is sure for the hard-hearted wicked. One day, their eyes will widen in terror as they realize that they didn’t get away with it after all.
But He uses it all. I know what happened to me made me dive into good material, good websites, good theology, and good life-stories of abused people whose lives have been redeemed on the other side of Hell’s valley. Their sharing lit the way for me to see that I will be led out of Hell’s valley as well. By Christ Himself. And guided by the lights lit by others along the way.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being save and among those who are perishing. II Corinthians 2:14-15
I have found people that I never would have connected with if my life had been peaches and roses. I have found people who have truly lived through hell. That smell of the smoke still clings. Jesus the Redeemer uses it to create the base-note in our sweet aroma, our perfume, that He makes waft through every place He now leads us. Like the next verse (16) says, “to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life…”
So again, does God want me to stay and suffer like the big-name churches have spewed out on their congregations? Do I have to keep crawling back up on the altar? Is it sin to crawl out of the fire? NO! God’s Word says,
Deliver those who are being taken away death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh! hold them back. Proverbs 24:11
By all means, escape if or when you can. Without guilt! Christ came to set us free!
31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:31-32,36
But, what about Romans 12:1? That’s used a lot to speak about sacrificing yourself.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
Remember, always check the context. In the previous chapter, Paul lays out why God has chosen to not save only and all Jews at this time. He is extending salvation to us Gentiles. Thanks be to God, we are made part of His great salvation! Paul is reminding the Gentile believers in Rome to remain thankful and humble, and to never believe they were or had something so special that God overthrew His chosen people to gain them.
Paul points out that God is using Israel’s present partial hardness-of-heart to extend salvation to the Gentiles. And He is using saved Gentiles to pique the interest of spiritually-minded Jews to draw them to salvation as well. So God is reaching out to all people, in various ways, to make a new people for Himself. Therefore, we are to live our new lives in humble thankfulness and worship, since we have been made acceptable to God through Christ’s full payment on the cross. We in no way earn acceptability to God by sacrificing ourselves or by any other of our actions. Christ makes us acceptable through His perfection put on our account. Then we walk with Him, living our new lives He’s given us, making ourselves available to Him in thankfulness and praise.
So what about all those other verses the preachers use to say to suffer for Christ’s sake — Philippians 1:29, II Cor. 1:6-7, etc.? Checking the context around these verses most often reveals that this suffering arises often from the reaction of the “religious” people around you as they try to forcibly shoehorn you back into their “good, little, suffering, submissive, quiet, Christian girl (or boy)” mold. And somehow, you will find, you just don’t fit anymore. Jesus called it trying to pour new wine into old wineskins.
But they will shun you. Long-time friends in the church no longer look your way in the grocery store. Or they will stop and speak uncomfortably to you if cornered. The leaders will hold meetings with you, or hold meetings concerning you without your presence or knowledge. They will try to force you back to the way you were, or even back into the hell you were in. They will call it working toward unity. They will call it proper submission to authority. They will call it the will of God.
They may even discipline you, try to silence you, or put you out of the church. This is the suffering that will happen. They did it to Blind Bartemaus in Jesus’s time after Christ freed the blind man from his sightless world. The truth is that Jesus’s sacrifice has set you free to walk in a new life. But they will make you suffer to try to mold you back into conformity.
This is the sacrifice the big-name preachers and followers seek. Sacrifice yourself to fit them. This is the altar they want you to lay yourself on. But, you may find you have to sacrifice your old church, your old “friends” (who didn’t support you when in your deepest need anyway), your old lifestyle. Come out from among them. And then what Paul said will start to make sense.
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ… Philippians 3:7-8
Come, be outside the camp.
- Eareckson Tada, Joni. Diamonds in the Dust, 366 Sparkling Devotions. Zondervan Publishing House. 1993 May 21. Living Sacrifices
- Ibid. November 8. God’s Will for Your Life
- All Scripture verses are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.