I was in my early teens when I became a Christian. In those days “sacrifice” was a big word. When my Bible class teacher gave away some of his books, the one I received was Sacrifice by Howard Guinness.
And then there was Elisabeth Elliot’s book The Shadow of the Almighty, written about the sacrificial life of her husband, Jim, who was killed by the Auca (Huaorani) people of Ecuador. I once had the privilege of speaking at a conference with her, and telling her that when I was a teenager I knew more or less by heart whole sections of her book. Everybody knew the oft-quoted words from his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”.
I remember as a teenager hearing Gladys Aylward speak about the sufferings of young Christians in China—willing to sacrifice their lives for the Lord Jesus.
Before that there was C.T. Studd, the English cricketer who played in the match against Australia that was the origin of “the Ashes”, and who later became the founder of the Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade. He wrote a challenging little tract about professing Christians being “chocolate soldiers” rather than real ones (they melt if things get hot!).
And there was Amy Carmichael, whose little book If was a compilation of sayings that all began “If I…” and ended “… then I know nothing of Calvary love”. The message was that if sacrifice wasn’t at the heart of your life, then you would “know nothing of Calvary love”.
Sacrifice. I lost count of the number of sermons and talks I heard in those days about taking up the cross to follow Jesus, about counting the cost, about not turning back, about giving everything to Christ.
But something must have changed since then. These days I hardly ever hear a message or see a book that majors on sacrifice. Am I getting old and blind and deaf—or is it really the case that “satisfaction” seems to have replaced “sacrifice” in our vocabulary?
Perhaps this explains why we can gloss over these words of Paul about giving everything away and even our body being burned. At least in the West, you’re not likely to have to give your body to be burned—like the Scottish martyrs Patrick Hamilton, burned to death in St Andrews on 29 February 1528, and George Wishart, likewise on 1 March 1546. Or like the English bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley on 16 October 1555, or Archbishop Thomas Cranmer on 21 March 1556. You can still go to the spots where these horrific events took place. But you’re not likely to experience them yourself. Others maybe; elsewhere perhaps. But not where we live. Is that why Paul’s words do not seem to "scratch where we itch"?
But martyrdom isn’t the first thing Paul mentions here to make his point. He begins with giving all your possessions away—the very thing the rich young ruler in the Gospels couldn’t bring himself to do. He simply had too many of them to let go (Matthew 19 v 16-24). Maybe this comes closer to home. What if Jesus asked you to do that?
A friend told me about a memorable experience at a student conference. One of the leaders read out the words of Frances Ridley Havergal’s hymn “Take my life, and let it be”. He invited the students to respond to each line with a hearty “Yes!” It went something like this:
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in
ceaseless praise… —Yes!
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of
thy love… —Yes!
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages
from thee… —Yes!
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I
The students had the integrity to realise that at this point professions of love for Christ might be measurable. They were not, apparently, sure they loved the Lord Jesus enough to impoverish themselves for him. At that point enthusiastic response became self-revealing silence.
By contrast, Paul had been impoverished for Christ. For Christ’s sake he had “suffered the loss of all things”. Perhaps he had been disinherited. But in any case, he counted all things as “rubbish” (the word means “dung”) by comparison with Christ (Philippians 3 v 8). And he was willing to die for Christ. But here he was telling the Corinthians that it is possible to “suffer the loss of all things” (including one’s life in excruciating circumstances) and yet “gain nothing” if love is lacking—love for Jesus that produces love for others.
The message is shocking; but it is basically simple. The motives and intentions of our hearts can be very devious. We can make great sacrifices, and yet do so grudgingly rather than lovingly. We can fall into the subtle trap of thinking the sacrifice itself impresses God.
You’ll probably be invited (or expected) to give generously of your money and time in some way this Christmas—perhaps at church or at home. But amid all the busyness, the message of Christmas brings us back to first principles. It shows us what love is. And the first principle is this: Jesus gave everything He had, because He loved us. He gave His body to the cross because He loved us. Before that He lived His life in a loveless world because He loved us. But first of all, He came because He loved us. The Creator became part of His creation; the Lord of glory came to this fallen earth, to take upon Himself the consequences of the sin of the world.
Why did He come? Because He loved us. Why did He die? Because He loved us. Why did He love us? Because He loved us.
If we lose sight of that, we will never love Him properly. Perhaps we will never be able to love anybody properly. For until we have tasted His love, we can never fully appreciate why love makes us willing to sacrifice everything.
If we are going to live lovingly as well as sacrificially, we must look at the One who did both.
In what area of your life do you feel that you are (or ought to be) making a sacrifice? How has what you have read today challenged your attitude in that area?
Let your love so warm our souls, O Lord,
that we may gladly surrender ourselves with all that
we are and have to you.
Let your love fall as fire from heaven
upon the altar of our hearts;
teach us to guard it carefully
by continual devotion and quietness of mind,
and to cherish with anxious care
every spark of its holy flame,
with which your good Spirit would quicken us,
so that neither height nor depth,
things present nor things to come,
may ever separate us therefrom.
Strengthen our souls, animate our cold hearts
with your warmth and tenderness,
that we may no more live as in a dream,
but walk before you as pilgrims
in earnest to reach their home.
And grant us all at last to meet with your holy saints
before your throne,
and there rejoice in your love.
Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769)