All Christians are called to lives of self-sacrifice:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”……” [Matthew 16:24-26]
“And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.…”[Luke 9:23-24]
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.…” [John 12:24-25]
“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.…” [Luke 14:26-27]
Many would see the Desert Fathers and Mothers as having taken the injunction to self-sacrifice to extraordinary extremes. They gave up all that they had, their lives in the world, their families and friends, comfort and security and even, symbolically, their lives as a whole.
A number of principles of self-sacrifice can be seen in Desert Spirituality, and they challenge conventional notions of what it means.
1. Self-sacrifice is not simply complying with the law: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” [Matthew 23:23] Doing what is required or commanded does not involve self-sacrifice, especially when it means doing the bare minimum, precisely calculated, of what is required. The quotation from Matthew is sometimes translated “you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens”, the key words being “careful” and “tiniest”. Those who seek to measure precisely the minimum required for conformity to the law are perhaps “sacrificing”, but only in the legalistic and technical sense which the Lord identifies with the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees. There is no generosity of spirit, no willingness of surrender – no self-sacrifice.
2. Self-sacrifice is not self-promotion. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” [Matthew 6:2] Those who sacrifice to be seen to do so are not self-sacrificing, but self-promoting. For all they had sacrificed, the Desert Fathers and Mothers are never recorded as engaging in self-aggrandising self-advertising: “See how much I have given up, look at my sacrifice…” The same holds true of prayer: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” [Matthew 6:6-7] Those who pray ostentatiously or advertise the “quantity” of their prayer are not engaged in self-sacrifice.
3. Self-sacrifice is actual sacrifice. “And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” [Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4] Sacrificing that which has little or no value to us may be sacrifice (as in offering or giving to charity) but it is not self-sacrifice. Giving old clothes that are worn out and no longer fit to charity is a good and beneficial thing to do: it is not self-sacrifice, it is disposing of that which is not wanted and cannot be used. The multimillionaire donating $100 (and claiming it as a charitable tax deduction) is not self-sacrificing. The poor widow donating $1 (well under the threshold for claiming charitable tax deductions!) will have to give something of her own life to do so: she is sacrificing herself.
4. Self-sacrifice is costly. “Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.” [Matthew 19:21-22; Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33] Self-sacrifice must necessary be personally costly, not essentially, nor even necessarily, in terms of monetary value. There may be things that have great emotional or psychological or personal value which, if we are called upon to sacrifice, we cannot, and will go away grieving.
5. Self-sacrifice is self-sacrifice – not the imposition of sacrifices on others. A person cannot rightly abandon or fail to fulfil responsibilities to the family, for example, while claiming to be engaged in self-sacrifice. Nor can a person “steal” time from an employer for the purposes of prayer; that is as much theft as would be stealing money from the employer to give to charity. A parent who fails to provide love and care (and time) for children in order to pray or attend church services is not engaged in self-sacrifice, but the sacrifice of the children. That which is sacrificed must be the “property” of the person making the sacrifice.
6. Self-sacrifice must be freely chosen and properly motivated. “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” [1 Corinthians 13:3] Just as a sacrifice is not self-sacrifice if it is done to impress others, to comply with the law, to attempt to obtain some gain whether in this world or the next, so it must be inspired by the right motivation. In Christianity that motivation is love, as the Apostle writes: I can give everything, even my own life, but if I do not do so out of love, it is as nothing. It is important to recall that the Greek word used by the Apostle is one of the number of works which can be translated into English as “love”: ἀγάπη, agápē. This is the love that is absolutely selfless, allows for no selfish or hidden motives, seeks nothing in return, neither asks nor expects any response, and is utterly self-giving. If the motivation to self-sacrifice is less than that – as it might be if motivated by two other forms of “love” known in Greek, eros (ἔρως érōs) and philia (φιλία philia) – it is as nothing. Eros is commonly thought of as sexual desire, but it is not only that; it is desire to control, to exercise power: it is not agape. Philia, “brotherly love”, can motivate action on the basis of wanting “to belong”, to be liked: it is not agape. Both eros and philia have their focus on “me”; agape has no focus on me. I sacrifice myself, not for myself.
7. Self-sacrifice cannot be self-destructive. It cannot be some strange form of pseudo-religious masochism. The physical body, for example, must be fed and properly cared for; failure to do so is an offence against He who created the body. Starving oneself to death is not religious self-sacrifice; it is the grave sin of suicide. Self-sacrifice requires giving as much as you can, not more than you can. Living in a state of exhaustion and psychological depletion as a result of some pseudo-ascetical lifestyle is not self-sacrifice; it is self-destruction.
8. Self-sacrifice must be done joyfully, and must result in a life characterise by joy, thankfulness and love. If the fruits of self-sacrifice are misery, bitterness and self-righteousness, they are not the fruits of the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” [Galatians 5:22-23]