If we’re honest, I’d say many of us could name a biblical story, character or lesson that annoys, if not downright upsets us. I’ll admit to rolling my eyes at Peter and Paul’s quarreling or shaking my head at Jonah’s final act of helplessness (did those three days in the belly of a fish teach him nothing?!). But in my mind’s eye, I see one scene — a particular act of sacrificial obedience — that makes me cringe with discomfort.
It’s a scene Moses paints for us with stark, detached realism: the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22).
Now, I know why Moses includes this in his Torah. Or, I like to think I know why. It’s foreshadowing, a Christ image; not just the potential sacrifice of Abraham’s son, but the timely provision of the ram. This passage describes God’s justness and His mercy, and it details sacrifice: a faith-filled man being obedient to a holy God, even until death (though, to be fair, not his own).
This story makes me squirmy, and while I’m relieved God provided a way out for poor Isaac, I’m a little put out on his behalf. What if Abraham had called his bluff, shouted, “Now, that’s one step too far, Lord!” I mean, why God? Why is this the test for love, for faithfulness, for obedience? Why this sort of sacrifice?
Later on, another bit in the Gospels niggles at me, which is a shame as those four books are usually a balm for my soul in times of spiritual crisis. I love reading about Jesus. I love His words (and, often, silence; the thoughtful tenderness that leaps from the pages). He speaks my language, our Jesus: peace and love, Good News and judge ye nots.
But occasionally, Jesus makes a bold statement, something that borders on a battle-cry. He, too, makes me nervous, and no more so than here:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple, (Luke 14:26-27).
I feel honored – and exceedingly humbled – to be part of a vast tribe of family and friends serving in a cross-cultural context. In fact, many of my dearest childhood companions preceded and gently discipled me towards this life overseas. Sometimes I even make a little joke of it, making up measures of holiness and sacrifice.
Those in the bush without running water or any toilet to speak of (so much of my perception of sacrifice revolves around modern plumbing), ministering between multiple villages and maybe even converting a witch doctor or two? That kind of sacrifice puts them way up the top of the righteousness totem pole. They’re the ones who will get to choose their heavenly mansions, wading through crowns along the way.
Then the dear friends sifting through new languages and lexicons, perfecting God’s Word in never-before-read tongues despite rolling power outages and a modest half-day’s journey to the nearest coffee shop. They’re near the top, too.
On and on I go, measuring sacrifice with earthly comforts, till I reach us: the suburbanites in Western Europe, living and learning in English, ministering in cafes and pubs, a McDonalds on every corner and our very own tumble dryer. Sure, six hours of daylight in winter, cultural missteps and living under the threat of visa refusals are sacrifices. But not much, really. Not like the others. In fact, I don’t even mind being towards the bottom of this type of totem pole; it’s pretty great company to keep.
But then Jesus’ words ring in my ears, and I reread them for the first time in years and oceans, through fresh translations and journaled prayers. This is how The Message puts it:
Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple, (Luke 14:33).
Now, I’m no homebody, and my family is far from perfect. We’re a lovely dysfunctional crew, mightily pruned and grafted back together into a slightly messy family tree. But eight years ago, when we first departed that Midwest airport, kissing them goodbye – though a sacrifice, to be sure – didn’t carry the full weight of Christ’s admonition.
But this is the truth: forsaking our earthly families of origin is a real sacrifice we all have made, equal in strength and loss no matter our plumbing situation. We let go of parents, siblings, nephews and nieces. Hate is perhaps not the word we would use to describe it, but this is obedient sacrifice lived out. Saying goodbye to those we hold most dear in the world and following Jesus into the unknown.
I felt it anew this year as God ushered me into a new phase of motherhood and ministry, interspersed with oodles of anxiety. Oh that I could’ve had my sisters here to walk me through it, to learn from, to relax and laugh with. But I kissed them goodbye all those years ago.
And so did they.
I wrote in a letter to them, “You’ve given it up to Him as much as I have. Aren’t we all learning how to be obedient from where we stand, showing each other what faith looks like?”
To be Christ’s disciples right where He has called them – which is different but no less important than where He has placed me – is a mighty sacrifice.
To give one another up, over and over again into the hands of Jesus, is a sacrifice.
To offer our souls and our sons to a just and merciful God, whether in desert or jungle or suburb, is a sacrifice. This is a sacrifice we still choose to make knowing He’ll provide the ways, means, and blessing.
After all, it is not Abraham’s sacrifice that redeems the story, and it’s not our sacrifice that redeems our own narratives, our ministries or our families.
Would we have it, sacrifice for it, any other way?
When did sacrifice (of earthly comforts or familial closeness) become real to you? How did God provide for you in the midst of grieving that loss?