Self-Sacrifice in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may attain eternal life.”

John 3:16 (NCB)

Nothing can be described as more characteristic of the teaching of Jesus than His exhortation on the duty of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is a restraint or limitation of your own desires or interests. The thought of self-sacrifice and martyrs are vital to Christianity. Found in Catholicism is the concept of joining one’s own life and sufferings to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Thus one can offer up involuntary suffering, such as illness, or purposefully embrace suffering in acts of penance. Self-sacrifice is one of the major themes of the New Testament. Jesus modelled it for us in the manner that He lived His everyday life. Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6–8). He said to His disciples, “… whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant. 28 In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:27–28).

Again and again it returns to the same thought, that a person must lose their life in order to gain their life; that no person can be His disciple unless they deny themselves, take up his cross and follow him; reminding us that no one can serve two masters. Apparently no others words that Jesus had spoken had ever made such a profound impact upon those who listened to him, and yet, no other sayings of Jesus have raised such stumbling blocks and caused more questions for the contemporary Christians today. They fit ideally into an age of the martyrs, yet, seem entirely inappropriate in an age of conservative Christianity. 

And, the Son of man is come eating and drinking…

What exactly could Jesus have meant by these sayings, what was He hoping to achieve, and what should the standpoint and action of today’s christian churches be in respect to the words of Jesus? It is safe to say that Jesus did not intend them as a call to asceticism. To his enemies He appeared to enjoy life far too much for Him to be a saint. In the early days of christianity, as today, it was very difficult to believe that an approval of the accepted rules of behaviour within our society does not in some way assert a lack of spirituality within someone. To the inordinately meticulous Pharisee, regarded Jesus as a man who surrenders Himself to sensual pleasure, they thought Him to be “a glutton and a winebibber, and friend of tax collectors and sinners” simply because He had arrived eating and drinking. The reproach belonged to the general way of our Lord’s way of living, consorting as he did with men and women in the common everyday life of man, sharing in their joys as in their sorrows, in their festivity as in their mourning. But the words specially refer to his taking part in such scenes as the feast in the house of Matthew the publican. He exhibited that the ordinary life of all people can be lived with perfect holiness, and that seclusion and asceticism were not necessarily a universal stipulation.

Nor is it true that Jesus could have thought that God would love a man more when he is miserable than when he is happy. It is very difficult for us to clear our minds of this unworthy thought. Low spirits can often be interpreted as spirituality, but Jesus never used unhappiness or suffering as a barometer for holiness. Whatever one’s circumstances are, a person had to rejoice because God is our Father. Life is not to be used as a penance, but as preparation toward a blessed future by remaining steadfast in our belief that our heavenly Father’s love is at the heart of all things. It would be a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ words if we were to say that all of Jesus’ followers must first of all become less joyous, less appreciative of life’s blessings, more suspicious of present happiness; in opposition to the words of Jesus calling for sacrifice, must be placed with those others which compose the Magna Carta of optimism: ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough troubles of its own.’ Matthew 6:34

If one thus clears his mind of the fanciful and over-zealous interpretation of Jesus’ call to sacrifice, at once we will see the great principle upon which it is based, that one must choose the supreme good rather than a secondary good. It’s not necessary for us to pause to discuss just what Jesus considered the supreme good to be. Clearly that would be our becoming members of the kingdom of God. It is, however, necessary to remember some of the things which Jesus regards as secondary goods: wealth, whether a lot or just a little, physical comfort, a reputation for piety, even life itself. All these Jesus says need to be sacrificed when they conflict with the supreme good. 

Notwithstanding, they have to be sacrificed because the supreme good is worth far more than they. A man who sold all so that he could purchase a field with a treasure in it, a merchant who sells all of his pearls so that he might purchase that one perfect and unblemished pearl, these men never considered themselves to be suffering a loss during their exchange, simply because the object they received in return was considered to be worth far more than the items the had sold. This is Jesus’ uncomplicated philosophy on sacrifice. A man surrenders an inferior something for a greater something. He has to give something for what he obtains, but he gets something far more valuable than that which he has relinquished. He makes a good bargain, for instance he offered his physical life; and obtains eternal life in return; Jesus’ own life is a striking illustration of this. From the first awareness of His extraordinary mission, He disciplined himself to follow His ideals. His experience we call the Temptation was not a bit of amateur dramatics. He actually chose the narrow path rather than the broader one, one that would have led Him to immediate success. Life meant so much to him, and he was ambitious as only a few men ever are; yet again and again he pushed some lesser good aside so that he could find his meat and drink by doing his Father’s will. People may have wanted to crown Him as king, yet he was without a place to lay his head, his friends would have urged him to avoid the suffering and death He had foreseen and knew what was in store for him, his own nature cried out in anguish in Gethsemane; but his choice, despite the foreseen horrors had remained unshakeable, a firm foundation. He gave his life for others so that they might live, he would seal the new covenant with His suffering and own blood, he would draw men toward Him through the cross. It was not that he hoped for martyrdom, but He understood that His mission was far too great and that under no circumstances would He ever be able to abandoned it whatever the price might be. He, too, would not give His soul in order to gain the world. And therefore God triumphantly exalted Him and gave Him a name that is above all other names. 

Of course, it is a matter of value. Some men judge that the accumulation of wealth is worth far more than love could ever be. Some men judge life to have a greater worth than their honour. They make their negotiation and reach their deals, and get that, which they consider to be ‘the’ supreme good, which for them is far more valuable that anything. I consider their view to be extremely myopic and I feel saddened for them.  In Jesus’ opinion they have sold their own souls. Their very bargaining bear witness to the vulgarity of the self that could in any way estimate a comparative values. His disciples were to make no such mistake, and his modern disciples must ensure that also make such a mistake. 

That being so, merely abstaining from meat on certain days, practicing trivial self-denials, or doing unpleasant things simply for the reason that they are unpleasant — all these things, however sincere the intention may have been, are not what Jesus means by sacrifice. He is dealing with a fundamental concept. It is a test of a man’s own life. Not that a person has to abandon all ambitions; but that the person cultivates ambitions for the best things. When a person believes the kingdom of God is supreme, they not only acts sensibly in holding on to it at all costs, but they also display for all to see the sincerity and the Christ-like character of their nature. Such a person is not in search of a romantic moral adventures, but they would not hesitate to leave their father and home and wealth behind, if these great goods are kept at the expense of one’s own higher self. To do this is to deny one’s self, to take up one’s cross to follow the Master. 

Today, now we all need to be reminded of this lesson. As a commercial sense, we would see the rationality of the exchange, but we need to remember that spiritual valuations are always obtained at a discount. All too often we hype ourselves up in order to be able to do the thing that needs to be done in order to justify success. But why “succeed?” Perhaps “success” denotes the worst kind of loss. No great cause, no great institution, no great life can ever afford to deceive itself. It may be that a cause, an institution or a man will fail. If it is because “success” required a sacrifice of honour or honesty or love, why should it not fail? Jesus failed, when judged by the ordinary standards of His day. Why should his followers not do the same? Until our faith in a loving Father conquers our own ambitions or our terror of our personal Gethsemane, we will never be able to share in even a small portion of the peace and love of Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,‡ let us throw off everything that weighs us down and the sins that so easily distract us and with perseverance run the race that lies ahead of us, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, ignoring its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Reflect on how he endured such great hostility from sinners so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. You have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children: “My son, do not scorn the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and he chastises every son whom he acknowledges.”

‡ Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses: the author may be thinking of an athletic contest in a large amphitheater wherein the heroes just mentioned are inspiring examples for us, urging us on to stand firm in the faith and even to martyrdom if need be.

Endure the trials you receive as a form of discipline. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there who is not disciplined by his father? If you have not received the discipline in which all share, then you are illegitimate and not true sons. In addition, we have all received discipline from our earthly fathers, and we respected them. Should we not then be even more willing to submit to the Father of spirits and live? … strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that your weakened limbs may not be disabled but rather may be healed … Seek Peace and Sanctification. Seek peace with everyone, as well as the holiness without which no one will ever see the Lord. See to it that no one is deprived of the grace of God, and that no root of bitterness may spring up and cause trouble, resulting in the defilement of many.

The bottom line is Christians have only one person on whom to keep their eyes as the object of faith and salvation: Christ (see Hebrews 11:26f; Acts 7:55f; Philippians 3:8). They look to the Crucified Lord to understand how to behave at all times, and especially in difficulties and persecution.

The soul that is to ascend this mount of perfection, to commune with God, must not only renounce all things and leave them below, but must not even allow the desires, which are the beasts, to pasture over against this mount — that is, upon other things which are not purely God, in whom every desire ceases: that is, in the state of perfection.

St. John of the Cross