We need to stop calling obedience and faithfulness to the commands of Christ “sacrifice”. There, I said it. It is not sacrifice to do what Jesus asks us to do. Full stop.
There are a bunch of reasons we need to stop this. First, we subtly convey God’s commands to be hard and burdensome. But Jesus specifically said, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden in light’ (Matthew 11:30). John tells us ‘this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). The Bible insists these things are NOT hard. When we call our obedience and faithfulness a matter of sacrifice, we suggest otherwise.
Second, not only do we suggest Jesus’ commands are difficult and burdensome when he says they aren’t, but we also convey that they are not fundamentally good when we call it a sacrifice to do them. The reason Jesus commands the things he does is not because he loves bossing us about. It is because he ultimately wants our good. Indeed, his commands are good because he is good. But when we call it a sacrifice to obey, we are suggesting that we are having to give up something good for the sake of Christ.
But this simply isn’t true. When we reject sin, we are giving up something bad for us and pursuing what is specifically good for us. We are shunning the sin that would ensnare and ruin us and pursuing what Jesus says makes for human flourishing. The language of sacrifice suggests Jesus is keeping us from good stuff and we nobly give it up because we love him and he wants us not to do it. But actually, we are rejecting what will damage us and obeying Jesus because his commands keep us from what will not serve our good.
Third, it makes Jesus seem like a killjoy. Jesus asks us not to do certain things because they will damage us, not because he’s out to ruin our fun. But when we talk about avoiding sin as a sacrifice, we make the sin more alluring. We suggest that Jesus is asking us to give desirable stuff up for him and, if we really love him, we better not do it even though we all know it’d actually be pretty great to do it. Jesus is basically dangling his love in front of us and, like some malevolent Diseny-esque villain, only lets us have it if we give up some pretty great stuff for him. But that isn’t what he’s doing at all. Jesus is pleading with us not to sin because we damage ourselves every time we do it. He tells us not to do what is going to damage us, not because he loves making choose between something nice and access to his love. Calling our faithfulness a sacrifice suggests we are giving up the good life for Jesus when it is the opposite – the good life is found in Jesus and our sin keeps us from it!
Fourth, it makes us seem virtuous for not doing what we ought not to do. When we avoid sin, we haven’t made a wonderful sacrifice for Jesus. We’ve just not done what we ought not to do. Chris Rock famously had a bit about how some people boast about how they ‘look after my kids’, going on to say ‘you’re supposed to!’ Many people manage not to do what is wrong, driven ultimately by a belief that the consequences are not worth it. When we are faithful to Jesus, it is ultimately because we realise the consequences of unfaithfulness are not worth it. This is not particularly virtuous.
Fifth, it suggests we are the ones keeping ourselves faithful. Sacrifice suggests we are giving something up, we are doing something special. But, of course, we aren’t really doing much at all. When we don’t sin, it is because the Holy Spirit at work in us is keeping us walking faithfully. It is less that we are giving anything up for Jesus and more that the Holy Spirit is keeping us walking rightly with Jesus. We aren’t really doing anything at all!
So, for those reasons, we really need to stop talking about faithfulness as a sacrifice. I have heard people talk about being single and celibate as a real sacrifice for the Lord. It isn’t. Singleness is just being faithful to Jesus in the circumstances he has put you, just as being faithful to my wife in my marriage is not a sacrifice on my part rather than sleeping around with whomever I want. These things are commanded by Jesus for our good, not as some limit on us that is meant to keep us from fully enjoying life.
We are not sacrificing anything for God when we are faithful. If we turn down the opportunity to take drugs or get drunk, we aren’t being kept from really enjoying ourselves. The Lord Jesus is keeping us from things that will ultimately ruin us and cause us to be less fulfilled. If we obey Jesus’ call to be part of a local church, he isn’t bossing us about for the sake of it, he is calling us to do what is in our best interest. Whatever it is that Jesus is calling us to, whatever commands of his that means we will be faithful in our circumstances, it is not a sacrifice to do them. These are the means of living life to the full. And God should know because, as the author of life, he is the one who best knows how to get the most out of it!
We need to stop talking about faithfulness as sacrifice. It isn’t. It is for our own good that we obey the commands of Christ. It is in full knowledge that there is something better for us in being faithful. It is knowing that God is a good Father who wants to give his children good gifts. In all these things, we’re not giving up anything good in order to obtain something preferable, we’re stopping something ruinous in favour of life and living it to the full, that Jesus promises to those who are faithful. Obedience simply is not a sacrifice.