“Why are you running so hard?” the counselor asked us as we sat in his office a few years ago.
My husband and I looked at each other, hoping the other would answer this question. We knew what the counselor saw, a life beyond full with ministry efforts, heaped on top of raising small children, all taking place in a challenging living environment. Throw in a few medical crises, and well, here we were in the counselor’s office, wondering how we got here to this state of exhaustion and brokenness, questioning how much more sacrifice we could take.
We stammered out a response, something about wanting to live with purpose, a willingness to sacrifice and make a difference for Christ and his kingdom. The counselor was silent, waiting. We looked at each other again. Was that answer not good enough?
The counselor seemed to want to know the real reason we were living like this. And thus began a soul-searching journey of questions for both me and my husband, examining why we had certain patterns in our life.
Wasn’t this how we were supposed to live? Aren’t we taught to give our all? As the ol’ Stephen Curtis Chapman song goes, to “abandon it all for the sake of the call”? Wasn’t this taking up our cross, denying ourselves and living in obedience? Wasn’t this what God wanted from us? To reach the world? Wasn’t he pleased with our efforts and sacrifice?
We knew there was another side to all of this. We’d been taught about rest and Sabbath and boundaries and saying “no.” And we did that too… sort of, sometimes, when we could, when we weren’t in the middle of a crazy busy time, which was… not very often.
There was always an inner voice telling us to push through, push harder. Rest and boundaries seemed self-indulgent. We’re supposed to die to self, right?
But here’s where we had to dig deeper: the point of dying to self is so that Christ can live.
We asked ourselves hard questions. Did it seem like Christ was living and active in us? Or did he seem distant, an afterthought almost, as we blazed through our days full of doing?
Maybe we weren’t actually dying to self. Our motivations were certainly centered on God, but perhaps there were some pretty self-serving motivations mixed up in that.
Deep down, did we really just want to be awesome? Were all of these efforts somehow an effort to try to prove our awesomeness? Did we secretly believe that the best Christians suffer the most? Did we perhaps believe that while God loves us unconditionally, for him to really like us and be pleased with us, we have to do big things for him? That our sacrifices for him now were adding up to a pile of rewards to come?
Is THAT why we were running so hard?
Here’s what I’m coming to as I circle round and round the idea of sacrifice:
Sacrifice leads to suffering, sometimes big suffering, sometimes small suffering. The point of suffering is to know Christ, to experience fellowship with him in that suffering. But if sacrifice is not done in union with Christ, then it leads to bad things, to self-harm, brokenness, burnout, and more.
You might be thinking, “Great, I feel like I’m on the road to burnout and you’re telling me it’s not my circumstances, but because I’m not connected to Christ. Basically I’m a spiritual failure.”
No that, my friends, is the voice of shame. Guess how I know.
Instead of listening to that voice, let’s do this instead. Take a big breath of grace and remember that God knows we will veer into extremes. His arm span is wide enough to draw us back from either extreme.
He drew many of us out of the extreme of indulgent, comfort living. He invited us into sacrifice and service and living in unity with him for his purposes. When we drift over into the other extreme of restless, over-functioning lives of sacrifice, he invites us to rest and renewal and ease.
Because he is the God of both.
Sacrifice and abundance.
Service and rest.
Work and play.
He invites us into the tension, to do both with him. And if one of these is pulling us away from him, then we need to stop and evaluate. If abundance is making us complacent and numb, then we need to hear his invitation to sacrifice. If rest is making us apathetic and lazy, we need to hear his invitation to get serving!
But if service and work and sacrifice are actually distancing us from God himself, we need to stop and accept the invitation to rest and play, to heal and renew in the abundance that is his. And we can do so guilt free, because Jesus himself modeled this for us.
We can live in sacrifice or ease, as long as we’re living it in union with him.
If we’re living in union with him, then the suffering that comes from sacrifice, it doesn’t cause distance anymore, but rather intense fellowship… the fellowship of his suffering.
So perhaps the question shouldn’t be “How much sacrifice is too much?” But rather, “How is my relationship with God in the midst of the sacrifice?” and “Am I paying attention to his invitation to me?”
So how is your relationship with God, really?
Do you feel like sacrifice is causing you to feel distant from God? What is his invitation to you?
When have you experienced intense fellowship with God as a result of the suffering from sacrifice?
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