Something I really hate to do is apologize. Not because I’m a bad person or because I think it wrong…. It’s just hard for me. I have to apologize for some of my past mistakes and past teachings. I have been glorifying and romanticizing self-sacrifice to the point that I missed the point of scripture at certain points in my life. I would love to just start with that straight apology and get it over with, but as a story teller I have forbade myself from starting with the climax.
About a week back I was at camp, giving a devotion to all the guys there, and felt God prick my heart to ask these young kids (9-11 year olds) this question: “Do you ever feel like you keep getting saved over and over but aren’t getting any further in your salvation? Like you keep restarting the first level of a videogame?” I got the videogame reference from the sermon earlier that day, given by my “camp-mommy”.
Most raised their hands, even at this young age. The sad truth is that many of them will be on this cycle their whole lives, some will eventually just give up on their salvation, and a few may grasp the real thing and stick with it. The other councillors at this camp and I often accept that most of these kids may not ever grasp real salvation. We hope they do, but we have seen this cycle of getting saved over and over destroy too many people.
So, as I stood there looking at all of these children desiring real change, I thought back a couple more weeks to The Cumberland Island Trip where David Pizarro gave a devotion on agape-love. He read a verse in his devotion, Matthew 9:13, where Jesus declared that He “desires mercy, and not sacrifice.” In context, Jesus was responding to people questioning Him about hanging out with sinners. Jesus would go on to say this quote one other time in the book of Matthew, when asked about why He worked miracles on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:7).
Some awesome pics from The Cumberland Island Trip:
Before camp, I had been struggling with these famous words. I began to argue with Jesus:
- What about the rich man in Matthew 19?
- What about the cross?
- What about denying ourselves to be saved?
God spoke to me clearly on these scriptures. Christ wanted the rich man to give his possessions to the poor; as in, it wasn’t about his sacrifice but it was about the mercy Christ desired to see. Christ was never meant to stay on the cross; as in, it was never just about the sacrifice but instead it was about showing all humankind the mercy of salvation. Christ said to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and FOLLOW HIM; as in, the important part is not just to deny yourself but instead it is about following Him, the man who was the incarnation of Mercy, itself.
After some discussion with friends, God even brought me to see that, that was the sin of Judas Iscariot. He betrayed Christ because he was frustrated with how the group’s money was being spent on the poor. It’s always been about the mercy.
So, as God slowly chipped away my resistance to His Word, I began to see that maybe sacrifice shouldn’t be as romanticized as it often is in our American, evangelical culture. This confrontation with my presumption that self-sacrifice was a virtue led me to study where the phrase originally came from – when God told Israel that He desired mercy over sacrifice, in the book of Hosea. Let me show you what I learned in that study:
A Short Exegesis of Hosea 6:1-6
Dr Constable states that this book is especially powerful to him because of how Hosea had to experience God’s message to the Israelites. In the first few chapters of Hosea, the prophet Hosea is told by God to marry a whore. He buys his wife and after sometime she would leave him and he would buy her again…. and again and again. God says this is how His relationship was with Israel.
This reminds me of how many kids raised their hands at camp claiming to feel like they were starting level 1 over and over again in their lives.
After the ordeal with the whore, turning to chapter 6, God and the nations of Israel and Judah begin a conversation:
Come, let us return to the LORD;
for He has torn us, that He may heal us;
The Israelites sincerely apologize and continue on to make bold assumptions, based on faith, of how God will save them.
He will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.
We see that the Israelites are sincerely sorry and truly believe they will be forgiven. But, as my mom used to tell me, ‘sometimes sorry isn’t good enough’. God replies in the next verse,
What shall I do with you, O Israel?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
God is tired of how the Israelites keep having to start level 1 over, like Hosea’s wife who kept returning to whoredom. They were sincere in their apology but there was no substance to their repentance; they were repentant but not consistent. And, because of their inconsistency, God continues to say,
Therefore…. I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
The people had faith that God would come as rain and replenish them, but instead God declares judgment that will bring their sins and inconsistencies into the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
And that’s the kicker. God gives us the answer that can keep us from having to continue on our salvation cycle. We must grasp the substance of our salvation – steadfast love. Our salvation process is not about what sins we can sacrifice from our lives, but instead it is more about how we can add more love to our lives. The word for “steadfast love” in this passage is translated as “mercy” in the Oxford Bible Commentary and it is translated as “loyal love” in Dr Caroll Rodas’ commentary.
God saw that the apology the people of Israel gave was merely an emotional ejaculation rather than a change of heart. “Mercy”, “loyal love”, and “steadfast love” are all the substance of true godliness. This substance is what will allow us all to move past that first level, which many of us feel like we are starting over and over and over again. God desires that we love one another and seek after the knowledge of His Word…. IT IS NOT ABOUT THE SACRIFICE.
So, here it goes: I have been wrong many times in my own teaching on self-sacrifice and for that I apologize to anyone I may have mislead in my leadership or in my teachings over the years.
After doing this study, this lesson began to become real. I reflected on some pretty clear points in my life and the lives of those around me, when we have gotten this whole thing backwards:
- I have one uncle who grew up in church and experienced so many church splits that he gave up on church and God. The church represents God and when we show that we care more about a certain philosophy, a type of leadership in the church, or (God forbid) how the church looks, than we do people…. well, we just chose sacrifice over mercy and someone’s soul was on the line.
- One time I was asked to restart a children’s program in Wilmington, NC. The first thing I did was fire all volunteers so that I could run the program how I saw fit and hire the people best for how I thought that should look. I sacrificed people that God may have wanted me to disciple or mentor or help. I chose sacrifice over mercy.
- Some close friends of mine recently got into a disagreement with how their youth program should be ran. The head pastor ended up strong-arming the youth pastor into stepping down. This pastor chose sacrifice over loyal love.
- In Charleston, SC, I met a girl who was in a few harmful relationships so I chose to get involved. I ended up dating her for a while to help get her out of these situations. I brought myself to a dark place in doing so and I ended up bringing her spirits down also. I chose to sacrifice myself instead of simply looking for a way to be her friend in steadfast love.
And so, I feel I must apologize for my previous actions and those actions of my peers.
I believe that understanding this concept will change one’s stance on personal health, one’s salvation process, and one’s leadership. In bodily health we see this concept played out. If one sacrifices sleep to get work done, then they end up losing vitality and possibly time spent alive (yes, it is that detrimental to your health!). This sacrifice does more harm than it would have done to give up work time to sleep, in order to show your body and mind some mercy.
Dieting is the same, when we sacrifice a lot of calories or any one particular macronutrient (carbs, proteins, or fats) to lose weight, then we harm our microbiome. The microbiome is an ecosystem inside your body made up of bacteria, viruses, and etc. When we harm our microbiome, we harm our gut-health, which in turn causes bloating – thus defeating the purpose of dieting.
My own brother refuses to eat healthfully because he thinks all health food is nasty and does not want to sacrifice his junk food…. Clearly, he hasn’t read how good bacon is for you. Clearly, my brother also does not understand that it isn’t about the sacrifice but instead it is about showing mercy to your body so that you are not so tired and so unhealthy that you die before your time (Ecclesiastes 7: 15-18). Is junk food really worth the sacrifice of the quality of your life?
In leadership, when we make unnecessary sacrifices, we often forget to lead new leaders to take our place, thus allowing what we are doing to rise and fall with us. Leaders may also sacrifice volunteers or employees too swiftly, thus scaring the rest of the volunteers and employees away. It harms our aspirations as a whole.
I believe that salvation is not a one-time action but rather a process that we all go through as Christ’s disciples. This process is one of transformation where we go from who we are now to becoming part of who God is – love (1 John, chapter 4).
When we make our process of salvation all about sin-management and nothing else, we miss the point of what Christ did. It is “for freedom Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1 ESV).” When all we worry about is our sin, we lose sight of living in Christ. Christ died so that we “may have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10)”. We miss the point of salvation when we only focus on what we cannot do. Christ called us to be salt, not to simply avoid being crap.
I have another friend currently who’s church leadership has split. He has felt pressure both to leave his church and to stay. He’s told by one side that the sacrifice of their youth pastor was necessary and the other side has allowed him to feel pressure to sacrifice his church and abandon ship. The extraordinary thing though, is that this friend has looked past the argument and looked to the people at his church. He is so concerned about the fallout of this argument that he has positioned himself to be there for these innocent people who feel the weight of this split. This is what it looks like when leadership chooses steadfast love over sacrifice; I wish someone would have made this choice at one of the churches that my uncle grew up in.
In the show, Full House, one family is left without their mother. The father was left with a house full of children to raise by himself, until the kids’ two uncles (Jesse and Joey) decided to come live with the family and help out. Both of these uncles sacrificed their lives to help out, but the show never mentions their sacrifices in grave detail, instead the audience is left to focus on the love and mercy shown to these children. This is what this concept looks like lived out in family – go watch Full House and Fuller House on Netflix!
God wants us to show mercy and participate in love and if that requires sacrifice then so be it, but that sacrifice is not at all the point of what God desires of us. When we grasp this greater point of salvation, we no longer are like the morning dew which goes away so easily but rather we gain substance for consistent change in our lives.
I ask you all to join me and find one thing, in your life, that you are unnecessarily giving up and stop giving it up. When we stop making these unnecessary sacrifices, I believe that we will start to see the bigger point of mercy and strive for that instead. When we give ourselves less self-inflected constraints, then we have more room to grow in our loves.
In The Four Loves, CS Lewis tells a story about a mom who gave up everything for her family. She sacrificed her job and her time. She even sacrificed her sleep to the point that she would stay up and wait on anyone who was out late, regardless of how old her children got. She cooked every meal even if her family did not want it. Her sacrificial love was overbearing and exhausted her family. She made her family feel like they too were constrained in their relationship with her. They were so over-burdened by her sacrifices that when she passed away, they were all relieved. Lewis even claims that the family was happier without her. I always thought the point of this story was that family love is not good enough on its own, but now I understand that this story is one that foretells the dangers of prioritizing sacrifice over mercy.