This is the audio recording of the third reading of week two of Start, entitled The Best Kind of Sacrifice.
“Jesus said you are to love one another as I have loved you, a love that will possibly lead to the bloody, anguish gift of yourself, a love that forgives seven times seven, that keeps no record of wrong. This is the criterion, sole norm, the standard of discipleship”
When we love, we show that we know God and are part of his family (see 1 John 4:7-12). Our ability to give and receive love demonstrates maturity in our faith. We must remember that “love” is not warm feelings or good wishes. Love is not defined by our thoughts or intentions. It is defined by our actions.
Love is a sacrifice. That doesn’t mean loving others can’t be fun or that it brings no benefit to us. But it does mean that love requires us to set aside our interests in order to prioritize the well-being of another.
It is all too easy to view our activities as transactional, but when we do this, we aren’t loving. Transactional relationships are focused on benefits. They are entered into and continued as long as we benefit in some way. We subconsciously keep score of how much has been done, shared, given, and received. Our attention remains on what we can get from the relationship, not what we can give. Admittedly, it’s difficult to avoid thinking this way. It’s natural for us to prioritize our own interests. The great fifth-century theologian Saint Augustine famously said that humanity is incurvatus in se, “curved in on itself.”
As we grow spiritually, we learn a better way. Jesus repeatedly taught of the importance of considering the needs of others and not obsessing over our own needs. And yet, we can be quick to forget these things. There is one significant cultural factor that impedes our ability to love sacrificially, but it’s easy to miss: Western society trains us to forget what it means to be dependent upon another for our well-being. Young children and those who are frail or severely ill understand dependence. They often receive care they cannot reciprocate, whether it comes from love or duty. But for the rest of us, we work hard to avoid this dependency. We may even become prone to attaching our sense of worth and identity to what we can offer others. If we are accustomed to this, it will be agitating or even embarrassing to be put in a position to receive sacrificial love. But if we are unwilling to receive sacrificial love, how can we expect to give it?
Learning to receive sacrificial love can be incredibly humbling and transformative for us and our communities. If you have spent time with recent refugees, you’ve likely seen beautiful examples of this. Refugees come into spaces where they are dependent on the sacrificial love of others. This love is offered in the form of housing, resourcing, and friendship. Often those providing these things aren’t looking for anything in return. This sort of love is transformative for these refugees, especially since most of them are fleeing situations of danger and mistreatment and have little to no resources on their own. As we learn to receive the love of God and the love of others with humility and gratitude, we are propelled to imitate such love. The truth is, we have all received sacrificial love from God, who sent His Son into the world to save us from our sin. This demonstration of love is meant to inspire our love toward others.
Sacrificial love is beautiful because it is not motivated by self-interest. So many apparently loving actions in this world lose their formational power because the motives behind those actions are suspicious. When we love sacrificially, we are focused on being a blessing. Theologian Ed Stetzer explains,
“When you give somebody a thing without giving yourself, you degrade both parties by making the receiver utterly passive and making yourself a benefactor standing there to receive thanks—and even sometimes obedience—as repayment. But when you give yourself, nobody is degraded—in fact, both parties are elevated by a shared joy. When you give yourself, the things you are giving become, feconde (fertile, fruitful). What you give creates new, vigorous life, instead of arrogance on the one hand and passivity on the other.”
When we are focused on bringing blessing, we will be ready to meet needs around us with sacrificial love. We can step forward and see how we are divinely placed to meet human needs, through loving channels, to the glory of God. But this comes with another caution: Love is meant for the long-term, it’s not a one-time event. We are all, of course, limited in the time we have and the love we show. None of us are called to singularly solve all of the world’s problems or even singularly solve another person’s problems. There are healthy boundaries we must observe to avoid enabling harmful behavior or falling into codependency. And yet, part of loving sacrificially is looking for opportunities to love those both inside and outside our natural networks of relationships. Jesus himself expressed that loving one’s friends is something any person without God or faith can do (Matthew 5:43-48). But loving those you are unfamiliar with, whom you even perceive as enemies, can only be accomplished through the example and transformative power of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to live and love in a way superior to the patterns of the world around us, and to be more loving than the common person.
The call to sacrificial love can grate against our cravings for comfort, freedom, and efficiency. Nonetheless, love for others takes those cravings and turns them into gifts to another person. We turn our naturally self-centered focus inside out, as Jesus transforms us to love others with His awesome sacrificial love and gives us the strength we need.
In a spiritually healthy community this sort of sacrificial love is routinely practiced. In such a community, there is a true camaraderie and care for one other. The New Testament also utilizes a word to describe this sort of care, as it was present in many early Christian communities. The term is allēlōn or allēlōus and denotes the idea of mutuality and togetherness in personal relationships. The word is found throughout the New Testament and is often translated as ‘together’ or ‘one another.’ The New Testament says that early Christians:
- Were members of one another (Ephesians 4:25)
- Encouraged one another (1 Thessalonians 1:18), and were mutually encouraged by each other (Romans 1:12)
- Had concern for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)
- Forgave one another (Ephesians 4:2, 32; Colossians 3:13)
- Were patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13)
- Were to honor one another above themselves (Romans 12:10)
- Bore one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2; Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2 Romans 14)
- Loved one another (1 John 4, 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Romans 13:8; 1 Peter 1:22; and many more)
Descriptions like this may bring up memories of past or current communities where you’ve experienced this kind of relational connection. When we are in such spaces, we know and sense it tangibly. We often think it’s about the people themselves, our environment, or our season of life (which are definitely factors). But these allēlōus bonds can be nurtured. In other words, we can work to create these types of loving, sacrificial communities. Here are four core practices that help us in that effort:
- Truth-telling – Mature communities require a firm commitment to truth-telling. Christine Pohl says, “In the close connections of community life, the pressure can be significant to keep up appearances, enhance our spiritual image, and cover our failures or perversions.” In community life, we practice truth-telling by being honest about ourselves and speaking genuine words to one another. We avoid rumors and gossip and look to stop such words when they arise. We expect to hear the truth from each other and are willing to speak the truth in love to others. Thomas Aquinas captures the importance of truth-telling, saying,
“Now it is impossible for people to live together, unless they believed one another, as declaring the truth to one another.”
- Promise-Keeping – When we make promises, we voluntarily obligate ourselves to perform some future action, often for another person’s benefit. But when we break promises, we can betray relationships and erode community. Broken promises cause tremendous damage. Promise-keeping calls us to understand ourselves and our community. In our communities, we want to be honest, clarify expectations, ask and give forgiveness, and show appreciation when promises are kept. Before verbalizing a promise, we can ask ourselves several questions: What is my motivation behind the promise? Am I being realistic? Is this mine to do? What will I do if I can’t follow through?
- Gratitude – Gratitude is learning to recognize and express appreciation for the benefits we have received from God and others. It is more than saying “thank you” when someone gives you something. Pohl summarizes, “Gratitude is a happy feeling you have about a giver because of his giving something good to you or doing something good for you.” When we are grateful, we tend to notice the blessing others bring into our lives through their love and generosity. Bonded communities make gratitude a regular part of their life together so they can celebrate God’s goodness and avoid taking blessings for granted.
- Hospitality – Community is incomplete without hospitality, yet hospitality is rarely viewed as a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity. Hospitality, literally ‘the love of strangers,’ is about being open and welcoming to others and extending to strangers a quality of kindness usually reserved for friends and family. It is a vital practice because often, the most valuable resources we have to give are our time and attention. When we see someone cares and fellowship and friendship present, we sense how unique and special it is. Hospitality is costly, though. It will sometimes feel like an interruption, and we will often feel ill-equipped to offer it (especially if we are perfectionists!) Often offering hospitality leaves us feeling that we haven’t accomplished anything, and sometimes people will annoy us as we seek to be hospitable toward them. But, we must never forget that our efforts at hospitality are worthwhile in the Kingdom of God. 1 Peter 4:8-9 encourages us to be hospitable, saying, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” When we practice hospitality as a group, it carries the added benefit of bonding us with those serving alongside us.
When we commit ourselves to practicing these things in the face of everything in our world that makes forming community difficult, we will become loving people and loving communities. In doing that we will fulfill Jesus’ new command (John 13:34-35) and enjoy the blessing of spiritual, emotional, and relational maturity.
- How do you feel about helping a stranger or loving a person who may never reciprocate? What makes that difficult?
- What limits you from loving others more tangibly: time, resources, ideas? What might you need to sacrifice to free up space for more loving action?
- When have you received sacrificial love from another person? Take time to reflect and journal about a personal experience you’ve had. What was hard about it? What was a blessing?