The word sacrifice is not really a pleasant word. When you hear it, you may think of weird archaic rituals involving blood and animals. You may think of giving up something you love or like to save money or to save your waistline. Sacrifice is not a word we use often, and it’s often used with negative associations. But in a strange twist, the action of sacrifice is well regarded in popular culture and our collective societal imagination.
Popular movies, including the recent cultural phenomenon that was the Marvel Avengers saga, highlight sacrifice as a hero’s fate. We don’t mind if our heroes are killed off as long as their death has a greater meaning and purpose. We almost idolise the hero’s sacrifice in popular culture but in real life, it’s much less attractive—to the point where most of us set up our lives (or strive to) to avoid any form of sacrifice or pain.
In our national culture we’ve mythologised the hero’s sacrifice. I was visiting the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. This beautiful sandstone structure has a solemn reverence and gravitas that causes anyone who visits to become quiet and reflective.
I was surprised to see that the inscription at the centre of the shrine was a familiar Bible verse: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend” (John 15:13, KJV).
While Anzac Day has more pomp and marching, Remembrance Day has always seemed more sombre and seems to emphasise the sacrifice of the men who went off to World War I, still innocent and unsullied. Remembrance Day marks the end of that severe conflict and in some ways the loss of innocence. Theirs was still a sacrifice that meant something. And on November 11 at 11am (so I’m told, I haven’t actually been there at that time), the sun shines through the edifice in such a way that it lights up the verse engraved on the floor—highlighting Jesus’s words as recorded by John, more than 2000 years ago.
These words were not originally used in relation to war, as they are here, but in commendation of friendship and love for others. In the verse prior to this one, Jesus commands His followers to love one another. So, He’s really saying that His followers should be so loving they are willing to set aside their own agendas and comfort to put others before themselves. And it was not something that Jesus was unwilling to do Himself.
Christians believe that not only was Jesus an example for all to follow, but that He was divine, lived as a human (even a peasant) and without all the trappings of heavenly power and kingly dignity. Not only did He not exercise the power at His disposal, but He allowed His lifeblood to be spilled, eventually dying at the hands of the very people He had come to reconnect with God. His innocent sacrifice has been emphasised by Christians down through the years and they continue to spend their resources and their lives helping to make the world a better place.
The Christian concept of sacrifice has a long history. However, it is often misunderstood.
The early Christian church was familiar with sacrifice. Many were killed in the amphitheatres of Rome for refusing to give up their beliefs. An early Christian writer who wrote the book of James reflected on how testing could build character: “Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything” (James 1:2–4).
James understood well that those of his friends and family, and even himself, who survived through persecution and sacrifice had found a kind of character-building perseverance that helped them see things in perspective and value the truly important things.
It is not that Christians seek sacrifice out as some kind of twisted badge of honour (although some groups in history have), but that they are willing to sometimes put their selves in harm’s way for others. Historically, Christians were responsible for modern day nursing, hospitals and aged care, and are, in general, incredibly generous in supporting charity and NGO work.
Sacrifice doesn’t mean to abandon all self-care either. We now well understand that looking after your mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and financial health is necessary to help and serve others. Water can only be poured out of a full jug. Yet being willing to put aside creature comforts, your own luxury, diminishing your power, not claiming your rights or what you could impose over someone else—this is the love and sacrifice that Jesus demonstrated and encouraged. Sacrifice always costs something but sometimes the cost is worth it to make the world a better place.
In this often-frantic world, it is a rare thing to find someone who is willing to sacrifice their comfort, their money or their time for people they barely know. Yet we find many Christians and church groups giving their time, money and comfort to at least try to help make the world a better place. They don’t always get it right but that is the nature of humanity—imperfect.
There are Christians in your local area who are following the way of sacrifice, following Jesus in abandoning claims to power and control, and laying down their lives for their friends.
Jarrod Stackelroth is editor of Signs of the Times Australia magazine and lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and toddler. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.