No Sacrifice Is Asked—We Are Just to Get On With It

One of the most pervasive ideas shaping the way people see themselves relative to God is the notion that a person must sacrifice—do something, surrender something, or perform somehow—in order to obtain God’s favor. The idea looks like submission, and at its core is self-centeredness.

Abraham Heschel, in his book, The Prophets, includes this line: “How supremely certain ancient man was that sacrifice was what the gods most desired may be deduced from the fact that fathers did not hesitate to slaughter their own children on the altar.” That note is a picture of how full of the ideas of sacrifice human beings can be. He contrasts this with the contemporaneous words of the prophet Micah, recorded in the bible—words that even today read as a jarring repudiation. 

Micah asks: Should people sacrifice “thousands of rams” or “ten thousand streams of oil”? Should they give their firstborn? No. Instead:

He has told men what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: only to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. —Micah 6:8 

Only these things. And these things—act, love, walk—are not sacrifices, not payments. They are habits, ways of thinking, commitments of the heart. They are commitments of the mind and intention to the role the individual might play in the world ... in time ... in history.

Linger on that last word. What follows might sound like an aside, but I’ll come back to the topic: History, meaning time and its events, is the context made for us. History is the distinct and defined realm in which God and humans meet. God created linear time, and it does not bind him the way it contains us, yet he enters in and makes things happen there. As do we. Within time, the sequence of what happens is determined by God, and then in part, in a different way, is also determined by us—by what we permit and by what we do. Each of us co-creates the world within time, for better or worse through the sequence and the accumulation of our choices. Each of us makes history, or is asked to.

The reason why “sacrifice” is self-centered is because it repudiates the call to join God within the world in this way, within the world as he made it, within history. “I will do X so that God will grant me Y.” This mode of operation says the world is about me and my place or my comfort. Right now I am oppressed by trouble or fear, but let me issue a payment so I can get back to being comfortable again. The fallacies lie in imagining that what I do ought to return me to a stasis with my contentment at its core, and also in imagining that I can accurately deduce the favor God wants or (in the case of penance) the size of my debt to him.

Micah describes what God actually wants. The prophet’s words are still shocking. The form of sacrifice to which we are inclined today is not violent, fortunately, but it is performative: the thing we do because we presume God will acknowledge the service, so we can get back to doing what we want after this medicine is taken. Micah’s list offers no place for this kind of sacrifice, either. 

Later scripture is even more blunt. By the time we get to the New Testament, we read Paul saying: 

The Lord of heaven and earth [is not] served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. —Acts 17:24-25

To Paul’s point, what is the sense of a sacrifice that surrenders back to God what God has made and given? That includes a sacrifice of our time and effort—another way or saying life and breath.

The liberating and perhaps disorienting truth is that we are just to get on with it. The question is not how we will deal with God as a factor and a calculated aspect of our lives. The question is instead how we will live, meaning how we live the life the God has given. My answer, the way I live my life, is the sum of how I live my days, because day by day is the increment I am given. And how I live any day is the result of where I direct my choices, attention, and time—meaning, respectively, my actions, what I love, and how I walk.

To be a “living sacrifice” is the way Paul ultimately talks about this:

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. —Romans 12:1

The “living sacrifice,” not a dead one. The “living sacrifice” is thus the opposite of what we otherwise understand as a sacrifice. The sacrifice is the finished act: the done thing, the dead thing on the altar from which we walk away. But the living sacrifice begins here, begins as we walk. The living sacrifice is in where we go and how we go; if we are able to give God what he wants, then we do so here. The living sacrifice—our “spiritual worship,” says Paul—places the emphasis on the living.

[PS. My third book has more to say about “living sacrifice.” More here.]