For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. Mark 8:35
Self-sacrifice is central to the gospel but consistently misunderstood. In a world possessed with self-evaluation, self-promotion, and self-help, we need to hear Jesus’ teaching on what it means to deny self.
The common misconception is that self-sacrifice involves one or both of the following: complete abandonment of a present lifestyle and moving to a distant land to be a missionary, and/or to desire nothing good for ourselves and to forsake every form of enjoyment. Let’s dispense with the latter quickly. Jesus did not promise abundant life in order to form dour Christians who are chronically suspicious of anything appearing to be fun. I am quite sure Jesus smiled and laughed, and so should we. All of the vices listed in the New Testament deal with behaviors that harm oneself or others physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Anything that falls short of love should be denied, but to limit denial to a simple avoidance of things that are plainly bad trivializes Jesus’ teaching on denial of self.
Now the first misconception proves to be more difficult, for it appears to be the apex of self-denial and completely beyond the “average Christian?” Ask typical Christians what they have denied in order to follow Christ, and you are likely to be met with a blank stare. Most all of you reading this article have a home, car(s), and perhaps even a big-screen tv. Should you feel guilty about having such things? Selling all, giving away the proceeds, and wearing sackcloth is probably not what Jesus had in mind. So what did He mean?
Let me suggest a very common form of self-denial that will probably present itself today, and that is empathy combined with action. Empathy literally means to enter into someone’s suffering. The action means that you do something to mitigate the suffering. Now before we get too theoretical let’s see this empathy in action.
At a recent White House dinner, one of the lady guests was seated at a table and noticed what she thought was a waiter walk behind her. Being seated she noted only the striped pants typical of wait staff. Quite naturally she requested from this man a glass of wine which he promptly went and obtained for her.
This man, however, was Four-star General Peter Chiarelli, the number 2 ranking general in the U.S Army. I assume the general is accustomed to giving orders and being served by others. When asked to perform this minor service by a slightly mistaken lady he could have corrected or rebuked her, and we would not begrudge him a slight frown for her lack of awareness. Instead he chose not only to not take offense, but quickly imagined the embarrassment the lady would feel upon discovering her mistake. He defused the situation by graciously fetching a glass of wine. Everyone had a good laugh, and the general appears magnanimous and decent.
What enabled his quick thinking? Self-sacrifice. He assessed the situation, empathized with her potential awkwardness, and found a way to bring a bit of grace to the situation. He did not take umbrage or try to protect his image as a highly decorated and important man. He sacrificed that shallow notion of life and, in Jesus’ words, saved his life. He also became an even bigger man in our eyes.
You will be presented today with probably a dozen opportunities to help someone along in minor degrees to see God’s grace more clearly. The mother who fixes lunch for her children, the husband who brings home a card and a few flowers, the friend who visits and encourages a neighbor mourning a loss have all combined empathy with action. The examples are countless, and they are all a form of self-sacrifice. Jesus honored and elevated the small acts of kindness, and we must see them for what they are, the sacrificing of self for the aid of someone else.
So think of others. Enter into their struggle. Seek to share or lighten their burden. Sacrifice yourself.
Dr. Terry Ellis
February 13, 2011