When I was a kid [well, I still am a kid, but just an older one], like most kids, I understood reward and punishment pretty well. Do well in school–get rewarded with good grades and a pat on the back from teachers and parents. Goof off and cause trouble—end up in detention and get grounded for what seemed like life. Be nice to your sister—perhaps ice cream may follow. Annoy and terrorize her on purpose—get privileges taken away. It all seemed so simple.
Until it wasn’t.
As I grew older and passed through that wonderfully chaotic and confusing time of adolescence, I started to realize that the rhythm of reward and punishment didn’t always hold true. Sometimes, for example, I did something really nice for another student, like inviting him to sit with me at lunch when no one else would. I thought that I would be rewarded. I wasn’t, in fact. Instead, it backfired. Some of my friends weren’t happy about it. And the student I sat with soon proved to be annoying and also a bit of a troublemaker. Sure, perhaps my intention was good, but I certainly did not get rewarded for my “good” deed.
This shook me up, because at that point in my life my faith was often based on doing good deeds or believing something “right” to gain a reward. This philosophy worked when I was younger and actually felt quite good.
Until it stopped being true.
Until I started to feel empty inside.
Until I started questioning whether believing and doing all these things would really bring me any kind of reward.
I started questioning whether that was really the point at all.
There are many stories I could tell you—about times when I woke up to this reality. The more I lived, the more I realized that following rules or doing good deeds for the sake of some reward wasn’t really the healthiest and most honest way to live.
Really, I was learning about the difference between self-sacrifice and. self-giving.
Now, I don’t know how you were raised in your particular faith tradition [or lack thereof], but as for me, I was taught that helping others was a good thing by my parents. The reasoning was pretty straightforward:
Because that’s the right thing to do.
Of course, for any inquisitive kid or teen that answer isn’t enough.
So I found my own path, and that path led me to evangelical Christianity for a spell. And yes, I won’t deny that I had some pretty fantastic experiences, made great friends, and learned a lot. But one thing that always confused me was this whole self-sacrifice thing.
It usually goes like this:
Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice for our sins by suffering and then dying on the cross.
So…it shouldn’t be too much to ask for you to give up 2 hours of your week to go to church, should it?! That’s your self-sacrifice. Now sit and think about Jesus.
This line of thinking went further as I got more and more involved in the church.
Pretty soon, self-sacrifice meant giving up a lot of things, and not just time. I needed to sacrifice some friendships; some activities I liked to do; I was held to a different, albeit confusing moral standard as it pertained to sexuality; most importantly, I had to even sacrifice parts of myself.
I didn’t know it at the time, but for a few years of my life, I lost part of my own identity. I did things that I didn’t really feel comfortable or good. I gave up things that I was passionate about. I hung out with people who were like-minded and Christian like me in favor of hanging out with the kids I preferred to be with, who were different and even sometimes criticized by the Christians.
Does this story ring true for some of you?
Have religions or a church or certain people convinced you to sacrifice a part of yourself?
Allow me to quickly lay out a definition of self-sacrifice and compare it to self-giving.
Say you give and give and give some more [time, resources, energy] to someone. You think that you are doing a great act of service. You are relentless in your giving. Why? Because you think that eventually you receive something for your tireless acts of service. But eventually, you burn out. You’re human. You get tired, frustrated, and perhaps a little angry. You’ve sacrificed so much of your time and resources, and you just don’t see any return. And in that process, you’ve not only sacrificed yourself, you’ve sacrificed the very person you thought you were helping.
Why? Because now you’re bitter.
You throw up your hands in disgust and proclaim: Here I am, killing myself, giving so much, and what do I get in return? Nothing!
Resentment for that person follows.
You start to blame him/her.
I’ve seen this way too much in life!
So that’s self-sacrifice—a path to unhealthiness, burnout, and resentment.
Self-sacrifice comes from a place of fear and loss. We give and give [even more than we should or can] because we feel that we lack something. We are not whole inside and so we overcompensate by sacrificing too much until we burn out.
Now, how about self-giving?
Self-giving is not about your ego or fear or loss. Giving of self, I would argue, is a spiritual act, and comes from a place of wholeness and true humanity. If you feel whole inside, you are inspired to give. You give profoundly, creatively, and freely. Giving feels great while you’re doing it, because you’re not thinking about getting any reward! Self-giving emerges from you.
Think about that for a moment while we transition to a story in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus of Nazareth is again on a journey with his disciples and on the way, he meets a man who falls to his knees before Jesus and says:
Good teacher, what do I have to do get eternal life?
A very legitimate question for someone who understood reward and self-sacrifice.
But Jesus, like usual, was snarky, and didn’t answer his question. He instead asked his own questions.
Why do you call me good?
In other words, don’t butter me up so I give you the answer you want to hear just so you’ll feel better about yourself.
And then this: You know the commandments.
Ah, yes! The man must have been thrilled. The list of sacrifices! Excellent, let’s see…adultery? Nope, didn’t do that, check. Stealing? Nope, I’m rich, so check. Bear false witness? Now way, check. Murder? Oh goodness, no, check. No defrauding? Got it, check. And Honor mom and dad? But of course, check.
At this point, the man probably was smiling ear to ear, ready to go home with heaven guaranteed.
But Jesus didn’t let him off the hook.
Mark’s writer says that Jesus loved him when he said:
You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
Maybe Jesus loved this guy, but it was tough love.
For the man was rich, and he wasn’t ready to part with anything he had. So he grieved.
He grieved that this was the requirement.
Notice that Jesus didn’t tell him to give away all his possessions. The Greek wording for possessions doesn’t refer to an Xbox and a Iphone 6. It refers to land and property. Most likely this guy owned a lot of land and real estate. The last thing he wanted to do was to sell any of that in order to help the poor! What about all those other sacrifices he had already made!
It was a teaching moment for the disciples, and they were most certainly shocked. How could it be so hard for a wealthy, respected member of an elite social class to enter the reign of God? Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? That’s really hard to do! Unless it’s a really, really small camel…like a mini camel or something.
The disciples’ world was upset, because they saw hierarchies and social levels and God favoring the rich. Jesus saw a world in which women, children, lepers, and poor people were the first.
So Peter jumped up to try to reassure his ego, to remind Jesus that he and other disciples are still good, because:
Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you. Right?
Jesus seems to ignore Peter’s attempt to get the gold star.
Instead, he closes with a profound statement.
Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Land and property and family were the important attachments in the world. Probably this is still true in many ways.
The rich always have plenty of possessions—passing them on to future generations.
The poor always have little to none—losing land, property, and even family.
But in God’s reign, there is and will be balance.
Land and property, family and community, will be returned to the least of these.
And according to Jesus, this “reign” or “kingdom” of God is not something to aspire to, or to perform deeds to possess, but it is a reign that is present now.
All the rules and commandments that pious people spend their lives trying to follow do not get them any reward, as they think.
Self-sacrifice only leads to more people being sacrificed.
It’s actually about giving of self—what we have within ourselves. It’s returning balance to the world so that everyone has food and shelter and community and abundant life.
You see, the man who fell to his knees and then grieved; the disciples; all of us—we get distracted by the whole self-sacrifice thing and following commands to get a reward.
All religions struggle with self-sacrifice and it can go bad in many ways. Sometimes, it leads to people hating themselves. I’ve seen that. People are so hard on themselves and they sometimes even wish misery on themselves in a masochistic way. Other times, sacrifice can lead to people letting others walk all over them, even abuse them.
And as I mentioned before, sacrifice only leads to more sacrifice. These days many claim that those involved in “acts of terrorism,” whether religiously-motivated or not—do so out of mental illness. But so often, these acts of violence—whether in a school, temple, place of worship, or in public places—are committed by individuals who think they are self-sacrificing.
So all people of faith and those who do not claim any faith, let’s move away from self-sacrifice towards self-giving.
Let’s cultivate compassion within ourselves, because that will enable us to show true compassion to others. Caring for others requires caring for oneself.
Let’s give of ourselves, because giving is not sacrifice.
Giving is sharing.
And yes, giving is absolutely receiving at the same time!
Both parties benefit when someone gives.
And the reason for this is that when we truly give of ourselves to another, we stop separating our feelings from that person’s feelings. We experience real empathy, for both of us have a shared experience.
Friends, give of yourselves.