What kind of sacrifices are you willing to make?

Sacrifice is a word that has fallen out of favor in the public discourse. Presidents used to be able to say things like “We all must make sacrifices” without being run out of town. Even in spiritual circles, the term “sacrifice” along with others like “obedience” and “discipline” have been relegated to the archives of religious thought, old-fashioned notions that no longer apply.

The term sacrifice seems like a loaded word. The first definition that the dictionary gives is “an act of offering a deity something precious.” The idea of the sacrificial lamb in the Bible may not mean much to us, but it could have meant starvation to the people who were ritually giving that lamb to God. This act was meant to show great devotion to God as well as trust that even in giving up something they desperately needed for survival, they believed that God would take care of them.

As Americans we do not want to be told to give something up. The myth is that more is always better. If cellphones are good, then the latest is better. Why give up something if you can have everything? And we are told we can have everything, at least in a material sense and maybe in other areas too: the prefect partner, the perfect job, etc.

Gandhi says, “The law of sacrifice is uniform throughout the world.” Our very survival depends on the sacrifice of plants and animals. It is so easy for us to take this for granted as our modern food economy means we do not have to kill the chicken, gut the cow, plant the seeds, etc. We are removed from the sacrifices being made for us every day.

It seems to me that a true sacrifice can only be made if whatever is being given up is done voluntarily with real loss to the giver for what is perceived to be the greater good.

I think the first time I became aware of sacrifice in my life was when I became a mother. It was abundantly clear on the very first day of my son’s life that my life was now in service to his. If I did whatever I felt like doing without thinking of his needs first, he would not survive.

I may have mourned my seeming “freedom” of days before his birth, or certainly at times wondered what I would have done or been had I not made this choice, but it was clear to me that this sacrifice was the best thing that ever happened to me.

You might think that a child is not the best example of sacrifice because a parent, in giving up their former life, gets something in return, a child to love, someone to help with the jobs on a farm, to take care of you when you age, etc.. This may be true, although there are no guarantees in the world of parents and children. But what about sacrifices where the benefit is not so clear? Does God ask us to sacrifice?

Many of our religious stories and practices are built on sacrifice: giving up something for Lent, fasting during Ramadan, making amends during the Jewish days of atonement, letting go of ego in Eastern traditions, etc. These practices are designed to shake us out of our habits and routines, to bring us to greater awareness of how we impact the world for good or ill.

When thinking about sacrifice, it might be easier to think about something exterior we can give up, which for me might be chocolate, but I am thinking of a sacrifice that has more to do with an interior giving over. Can you give up your need to be in control, or to think of yourself as being unworthy of God’s attention? Can you give up the cultural and religious biases you were raised with? Are you willing to take your most stubborn and persistent inner demons, those you are aware of and maybe some you are not yet aware of, and offer their healing over to God? Do you even believe this kind of healing is possible?

This kind of sacrifice is certainly more difficult to see and reminds me a little of Jacob wrestling with the angel. That story, to me, is clearly about an inner struggle. From this perspective, I believe God does ask us to sacrifice. (I’m pretty sure eating chocolate is not high on Her list). From the other side of the struggle, it may not look like a sacrifice, because room is being created inside us for tolerance, for love, for God. But on the side where we cannot see how to go forward without these inner structures we have either created or been given in response to what life has given us, this sacrifice can feel like mortal combat.

It may not seem like the Hollywood version of someone leaping into the freezing water to save a child, without thought of one’s own safety, but I believe this inner sacrifice to be of great importance in our world. How can we respond differently to the suffering of the world if we are locked into one way of being as individuals and as a collective society? If we have no room inside us to heal our own inner demons, how can we expect to help heal those of the world? Gandhi understood the importance of exterior sacrifice as well as inner sacrifice and I believe he was talking about both when he said, “Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to truth and a more perfect purity of conscience.”

The Rev. Cathy M. Grigsby is an Interfaith minister who teaches at the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine, is the co-founder of the Interfaith Ministers of New England, an artist, a spiritual director and a retired art teacher.

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