The Christian walk, as revealed in the life of Christ, involves living in the blessing of God as well as accepting a call to sacrifice. Such opposing circumstances are difficult to reconcile.
When I considered sacrifice, I would remind myself of how Christ gave everything for me—while at the same time looking over my shoulder for oncoming trouble. Meanwhile, I assumed the blessings of a life with Christ were easier to receive and embrace.
But over the years, I’ve noticed my constant preparation for disaster robbed me of joy. I have found myself strangely anxious when good things happen to me, as if the call to pick up my cross will quickly steal all the good God has given me.
As followers of Christ, embracing both blessing and sacrifice requires wisdom, trust, and God’s strengthening power. So are we supposed to be ready for both? How are we to expect them? I’ll begin with sacrifice.
The Bible paints a complex picture of God using sacrifice to shape our hearts. There are literal sacrifices of animals to atone for sin, intentional sacrifices like tithing or Sabbath to to foster intimacy, trust, and focus on God, and God’s call to face difficult situations with love courage, and patience, such as Paul’s fortitude during prison.
Whether God calls us to sacrifice something of ourselves in tough situations, or with intentional discipline, the end result should be fruitful intimacy with God—not sacrifice itself. God calls us to wholeness, not martyrdom. When we pursue pain to prove our love for God, or pretend we’re indifferent to our suffering, we lose our connection to Jesus. It’s through God’s power, not our sacrifice, that we’re made whole.
In my case, I assumed sacrifices shouldn’t faze me. Since Jesus asked us to trust him in every situation, I took that to mean I should respond to trauma, loss, struggle, and pain with a wide smile.
But lately, I’ve realized that my loving Savior does not call me to stoicism. I serve a relational, incarnated God—my humanity is important.
If we approach sacrifice as something good in and of itself, we can quickly develop a martyr’s complex. On the contrary, Christ’s sacrifice is part of a larger picture that includes His ministry and resurrection. Celebrating sacrifice on its own misses God’s completeness.
In my family of origin, my role was to be good, and so I was almost absurdly straight-laced. But my “goodness” has sometimes led me astray. I wanted mostly to appear good. I sacrificed to please people, prevent conflict, or avoid risk. That shallow “goodness” kept me from really knowing myself or developing healthy boundaries.
Jesus is not a model of safe conformity. He angered people, spoke harsh words, and broke serious religious taboos. He embraced sacrifice not to win brownie points but because he was called.
Choosing to sacrifice because we want to placate others is not trusting God. Saying no to shallow sacrifice helps us say yes to the kind God calls us to.
We serve a Trinitarian God of relationship, who calls us to face hardship with others alongside us. Asking for help protects us from isolation, hubris, and burnout.
When I was diagnosed with a serious chronic skin condition, I quickly realized God was asking me to sacrifice my vision of my future, my easy assurance of health, and even some of my favorite, but now irritating clothes with good grace. Reaching out to friends helped me come to terms with the sacrifices the news entailed. A friend shared about her chronic pain, and put my smaller sacrifices in perspective. My therapist nudged me to be proactive in seeking treatment instead of giving in to anxiety. My husband and I talked about how to manage our losses together. The advice, support and wisdom I received helped me bear new sacrifices with more grace.
A few years ago, I decided to practice a Sabbath rest each week. At the time, I was tremendously excited about new opportunities in my career, using every spare moment away from my kids to write. I began realizing I was having trouble sleeping, and feeling more anxious from the constant pressure.
Convicted, I committed to a weekly break from computers, writing, and even housework. I knew I needed the time off, but it hurt to give up any hours to work. I wondered if I’d lose out on my big break.
I’ll be honest, at first, my enforced time off was hard. I felt itchy and bored. Over time, though, I developed a deep gratitude for God’s teaching about Sabbath. Sacrificing some of my “productive time” to rest helped me realize that my worth did not come from my accomplishments. It also lessened my anxiety, gave me less of a martyr’s complex about housework, and helped me enjoy work more.
Looking for the unexpected blessings of sacrifice keeps our hearts whole. Yes, new spiritual disciplines can ask a lot of us, but when done with thanks they change our hearts, and see how blessing and sacrifice relate to each other.
A while ago, I was paging through journals and read about the day I’d received a writing-related rejection letter. After the bad news, I laid face down on my bed for a good hour, weeping uncontrollably. It hurt to put that particular dream on the altar, and watch it go up in smoke. Still, when I journaled about it later, I mostly wrote about how vain I was for caring so much about worldly success.
Reading that entry years later, I saw things differently. Just the week before the letter, I’d experienced a trauma in my family of origin. In that season, I wasn’t just being asked to sacrifice professional dreams. God was also asking me to lay down my yearning for a “normal” family. The day I got the rejection letter, I was sacrificing much more than a cool project.
Quite honestly, I usually minimize my hurt.
When we experience loss that requires sacrifice, we should allow ourselves to notice and feel negative emotions like grief, anger, resentment, and sadness. We mustn’t use those emotions as an excuse to avoid the sacrifices God calls us to, but releasing them in therapy, journals, prayer, or to trusted friends is a healthy and normal practice. Like the Psalmists, we can tell God everything on our minds.
You’d think it would always be easier to accept blessing instead of sacrifice, but you’d be wrong. Blessings often confuse me. If you’re like me, growing up surrounded by chaos meant that when I experience good fortune, I brace myself, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I recognized my struggle to embrace blessing in Brené Brown’s description of “foreboding joy.” Since joy is one of our most vulnerable emotions, Brown says, we often sabotage it. Instead of enjoying blessing, we imagine, or ‘forebode,’ terrible outcomes. In other words, we kill joy on arrival.
I shivered when I read her words. When I gave birth to my kids, I imagined them dying. When we bought a house, I imagined it destroyed in a fire. No matter how good things were, I focused on worst-case scenarios.
So how do we embrace blessing wholeheartedly? Here’s what I’ve learned.
Years ago, my husband started a small business that earned more money than his previous salary. Since then, we’ve paid off debt, bought a house in a neighborhood we loved, and travelled frequently.
Quite honestly, I felt guilty about our good fortune. I grew up more privileged than my beloved siblings, and as a result, felt deep shame about money. As an adult, I tried to spend as little as possible—feeling guilty about buying new underwear when my old ones fell apart.
During the period of family upheaval I described earlier, I healed a lot of past hurt. I repented of the harm I’d caused, and sought redemption in my family relationships.
Since then, my shame about money has eased. I still spend carefully, but I don’t punish myself. Healing the past helped me enjoy the blessings of our good fortune.
Living with a chronic illness has made my future a chancier proposition. I have a poorly researched, poorly understood disease, and though my prognosis is probably good, no one knows what my necessary treatments will do over decades of use.
However, things are goodnow. When I find myself wondering about worst-case scenarios, I stop and remind myself I can be proactive, but I cannot time travel. If I fret, joy disappears.
The more I intentionally choose peace instead of worry, the more I experience God’s blessing right now.
“How do we grow into the demands of what is beyond us?” asked writer Bruce Kramertowards the end of his life. Kramer found his life upended when he was diagnosed with ALS, a fatal degenerative disease. Yet Kramer wrote eloquently about how “learning to live well while dying” blessed him even in the midst of terrible sacrifice.
The sacrifices God calls us to also bless us. Yet we’re not called to stoicism about our losses. Instead, our humanity—including our weaknesses—can be the crucible through which our deepest joys are formed.
You don’t have to grin and bear suffering or shy away from hard choices. Instead, we can ask what sacrifices God calls us to—and trust that there will be even greater blessing on the other side.
God does not intend for us to hoard his blessings, and scorn the call to lay down our lives for his sake. Nor does he wish for us to live looking over our shoulders, fearful of how he might ask us to let go. The truth is, God gives, and he takes away (Job 1:21). To truly know him involves knowing him as our provider as well as the Lord who prunes us to make us fruitful. For those holding this world’s treasures with a tight fist, the sacrifices of the Christian life might be an impossible ask. But for those who know God as their true treasure and reward, they are free to accept both blessing and sacrifice from him with open hands.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
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