On June 23, Reverend Charles Moore parked his car near a strip mall in Grand Saline, Texas. He knelt. He poured gasoline over his head. He set himself on fire.
The 79-year old pastor and activist died later that day, certain that his self-sacrifice would bring attention to the causes God had put on his heart: social injustice, discriminatory practices, sin. He left notes for his family—instructions for canceling credit cards and collecting death benefits. Impassioned explanations for his act.
“I would much prefer to go on living and enjoy my beloved wife and grandchildren and others, but I have come to believe that only my self-immolation will get the attention of anybody and perhaps inspire some to higher service,” he wrote.
By all accounts, the minister was clear-eyed and sober-minded as he planned his final act, convinced of its necessity and rightness. I’m certain that was little consolation to the wife, children and grandchildren he left behind.
Sacrifice holds a place of honor in Christianity—as it should. It is the foundation of our salvation (Jesus’ death) and a command for his believers. If we follow him, we will be called to sacrifices in a variety of realms: material, relational, social, existential.
Here’s the problem: in our hurry to label all sacrifices as worthy (and all sacrificers as noble), we may have surrendered our ability to discern which of them truly please God and which don’t. We’ve made sacrifice itself the goal and lost track of the purposes that validate it and the motivations that invalidate it.
Unspoken misinterpretations and lies about sacrifice abound:
- Sacrifice will prove the depth of our faith
- “Look at what I’m willing to give up—I’m a real Christian.”
- Sacrifice will elicit the accolades of those who witness it
- “Isn’t it commendable that I’m willing to live without this thing or this person?”
- Sacrifice will force God into granting our requests
- “Come on, God! Look at what I’m willing to give up for you!”
- Sacrifice will endow our lives with significance
- “My life hasn’t been worth much, but if I can martyrize myself for God…”
- Sacrifice will change God’s mind
- “Please. Please? Look at how strongly I feel about this, God!”
- Sacrifice will speed up his response
- “Will you do something about this if I give up my career or my well-being?”
- Sacrifice will earn us God’s approval
- “See? I love you. I really do love you.”
- Sacrifice will force him to get involved
- “Now will you do something about this? Now will you care enough to act?”
When God created us, it was for relationship with him. Not for a sense of purpose dependent on degrees of self-immolation. He created us primarily to love and be loved by him. To abide in him and commune with him. But our God-view has been warped by a man-made emphasis on doing for God over abiding in God, and in our haste to prove how much we’re willing to do, we’ve often misrepresented and misused the notion of sacrifice.
One of the problems with launching headlong and harebrained into life-altering sacrifice for all the wrong reasons is a disregard for collateral damage. Our sacrifice loses its nobility when it imposes harmful or toxic consequences on others. And if those people on whom it backfires are the very ones God has entrusted to us to protect, it takes on even more noxious overtones.
I’ve seen it firsthand—children abandoned for the sake of ministry. Marriages destroyed in pursuit of The Call. God’s image tarnished, his intent cheapened, our influence weakened. All because of sacrifices made for convoluted and ungodly reasons.
As we throw around platitudes about the worthiness of sacrifice without ever defining what good or righteous sacrifice is, I’d like to suggest three things to consider before giving it all up—whether “it” be family, wealth, status, dreams or life.
1. Check your motivation. If you’re trying to prove your faith, elicit accolades from others, win significance, force God’s hand, change his mind, speed up his response, earn his approval or lure him into acting…stop. Think again. Seek him—and stop trying to manipulate or coerce him. Learn his heart. Revisit his promises. Recognize his voice. Discern his purposes, strategies and timing. Be sure.
2. Determine who you’re really sacrificing. Yourself? Your children? Your sacred relationships? Your influence? Your responsibilities? Or God’s image to those who will blame him for the damage you cause? If your righteous sacrifice injures others or drives a wedge between them and the God who “ordered” your self-immolation, think again. Then pause for a while. Consult with godly friends and mentors who might better be able to gauge the importance and collateral damage of the sacrifices you envision. Be certain before you begin, lest your act of faith tarnish who God is to others.
3. Ask yourself how big your God is. Yes, following him will always entail sacrifice. Yes, he works in collaboration with us to bring about his purposes on earth. But there’s a dangerous notion that if we can’t “seal the deal,” he will be out of options. Can he reign in spite of our inadequacies? If we fail, can he still succeed? After a lifetime devoted to social justice, Reverend Moore felt that he’d done too little and seen too few results. He came to believe that his self-immolation was indispensible to God. So he knelt willingly and set himself on fire, because unless he gave it all in a public and horrific display, God could achieve no more.
But oh—the pain and suffering his family will endure.
Reverend Moore’s motivation might have been selfless and righteous, but those who were sacrificed to his sacrifice didn’t deserve the agony with which they’re living today. He may have lost sight of the fact that God also calls husbands to their wives and fathers to their children. That God’s purposes aren’t dependent on a single person. That God is bigger than our insufficience. That fuzzy motivations yield inconclusive results.
Sacrifice is good and noble. Biblical too! It tests and sharpens us. It deepens our understanding of our faith. It narrows our focus and increases our reliance on God.
But it must be wise, God-pleasing and Christ-promoting. I’ve seen the casualties of unwise sacrifices, of courageous deeds that have done more to separate people from God than to draw them to him. Sure, they were performed by surrendered hearts and justified by honorable intentions. But when our sacrifices harm God’s name and God’s children, can they really be his best for us?
Surrender without discernment is a dangerous proposition.
So is sacrifice without wisdom.
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