So I’ve been talking about Lent for a few weeks now, and trying to figure out what real sacrifice looks like—in general, and in my life specifically. And although I’m nowhere close to having it figured out, I think I have come closer to a better understanding of what sacrifice is through my observance of Lent this year.
Here’s what I have figured out: Real sacrifice is crazy. It doesn’t make any logical sense.
The idea of Sacrifice comes from an Old Testament idea of taking something perfectly good (even necessary) and giving it up to be destroyed before God. That sounds really wasteful when you think about it. People would bring the very first part of their crops—which is a big deal when you’ve been waiting all season long to harvest those crops and you live in a society without super markets where you eat basically only what you grow. And instead of satisfying their long wait (and their hunger) immediately, they would do one of two things: either burn that first portion up to ashes, or give it to priests, foreigners, orphans and widows. In the same way, they would take the first calf born of a cow, after they’d raised it, fed it and cared for it, and kill it—but not for dinner. That makes no sense at all.
It makes no sense… unless there is something else going on. That is, it makes no sense unless there is a God who somehow makes something out of this crazy sacrifice. Israelites “ruined” their crops and livestock through sacrifice because they had the craziest of all hopes—that this destruction of what is good would ultimately bring about something even better. Sacrificing their food and animals was a way of saying out loud and from the core of their being that they trusted that God was so very much in charge—not just of the universe, but also their own specific, individual lives—that God would make the world a better place in spite of their loss. Sacrifice was a way of saying that they themselves were not capable of providing what they needed (or what the world needed), but God was.
Next comes Jesus, who really nails down this idea of sacrifice (*pun semi-intentional). Here comes Jesus, healing, forgiving, saying the most wonderful things… And—wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles—He is God-in-the-Flesh, God come to us as one of us. If anyone had the right to a long life, it was Jesus. Imagine all the good He could have done with 30 years of ministry on earth instead of only 3. But—against all apparent reason—Jesus became a sacrifice. He died. That makes absolutely no sense. Just like that grain that was burned up to ashes and those animals that were slaughtered, His life was wasted—and why? Because God is in the business of taking what is good and making it way better. (And if we believe that, shouldn’t we be able to believe that God is in the business of taking what seems not good to us and making it way better?)… While Jesus’ crazy sacrifice is the end of the story we tell during Lent, it is only the beginning of our story. His blood—seemingly wastefully poured out—saved us, healed us, brought forgiveness and reconciliation to all people who are willing to accept it.
Here’s what I have figured out: Sacrifice may be crazy, but the very best things come out of true sacrifice. That’s how God works.
It seems that whenever I get close to figuring out something, I only end up with more questions. Like: What is real sacrifice and what does it look like in my life right now? I would be crazy to try to answer that for you, but I’ve come closer to figuring out the answer for me. Mother Teresa said, “A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, must empty ourselves,” and now I know what that feels like. True Sacrifice is running into the fence of your own limits, and then walking past that fence into the unknown—into the places that don’t make any sense unless you know God is doing something. It’s saying to God, “Fine. Let my life make no sense at all, let it be a failure, let it be wasted, let people think I’m crazy, but above all, let my life be yours.” It’s making like Indiana Jones and stepping out into a canyon you could never actually leap across, trusting somehow there will be a bridge, a parachute, a net—anything that will somehow make it OK, and maybe even better than OK. It’s knowing this: God is in charge. Period.
Here’s what I have figured out: Practicing Lent—and putting real sacrifice into action—is crazy. But even if it doesn’t make sense, I know that God works through sacrifice.
Lent is a time to practice sacrifice and to enter into the wilderness like Jesus did. But the wilderness is an awful place that we want to avoid at all costs… Why on earth would we enter into it willingly? From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, Christians are invited to do without some things they are perfectly capable of having and to take on some things that they are just as capable of avoiding. It doesn’t make sense—unless we believe that God does something here.
Lent is a sacrifice training session. Like any other training, it is really hard, especially because sacrifice itself is hard. But a key ingredient of sacrifice is that when it becomes really difficult, it drives you to faith. Lent is a time to exercise your faith, to focus your eyes on Jesus, the sacrifice that all the rest hinges on. Lent comes from a word meaning “spring”—not just a reference to the natural season before Easter, but also to the growth of the soul which is, as one of my favorite preachers said, “pruned with repentance, fertilized with fasting, spritzed with self-appraisal, mulched with prayer.” If you’ve been trying to grow your soul and haven’t seen any results, then maybe some time in the wilderness is worth a try. You willingly enter into a few weeks of choosing to live on less instead of more, of practicing subtraction instead of addition—not because your regular life is bad but because you want to make sure it is your real life, the one you long to be living, which can be hard to do when you’re living on busyness. And somehow when you willingly go through the wilderness, you lose our appetite for things that cannot save you and learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again, ready to worship and serve the Lord your God.
Here’s what I have figured out: Lent is great, but it’s still only the training ground.
Lent gives me a chance to practice Sacrifice by giving to something bigger than myself trusting that blessings come when I don’t put “me” first all the time. But I also want the rest of my life to be punctuated by sacrifice. I want to live in a way that my life doesn’t make any sense except for a crazy hope that God is going to take my mess of a life and turn it into something good for God’s glory. I want to expect miracles from a God who takes my little sacrifices and turns them into a door for the Holy to break into everyday life.
Author: Alicia McClintic