Suffering and Self-Sacrifice

There is a phenomenon among Christian activists that causes them to sacrifice so much for others that it hurts. Call it love, call it a sense of justice, or in some cases call it penance. These believers are motivated by their faith to right wrongs on behalf of others. Some feel they have been “called” by God to sacrifice in specific ways. Others feel no particular call but indiscriminately adopt the sacrifices they see other activists making because they believe that it will bring good to the world. I was in the latter group for many years, but after a while began questioning such haphazard self-sacrifice.

I believe, for me, that it started off as love. I learned that Christianity is the faith of those who not only believe in Jesus but who, out of love for him, seek to become like him and to love others in radical ways. Jesus came to build relationship, to bring restoration, to heal, to right wrongs, and ultimately to suffer so that others might have “abundant life.” I learned that truly becoming like him means making personal sacrifices so that others could come to experience that abundant life. And that my life would become more abundant (i.e. more joyful, more content, more peaceful) in the process.

But somewhere along the line, love turned into duty. I saw other faith-filled activists around me making all kinds of sacrifices, some of which they urged the rest of us to make. And without trying to discern whether each of their sacrifices was an appropriate sacrifice for me (with my own unique blend of personality, history, resources, passions, hang-ups, etc) to make, I adopted it into my own repertoire of sacrifice and suffering. Slowly, I lost any sense of who God was calling me to be and how he wanted me to sacrificially love the people around me. I was too busy being everybody else, saying yes to their callings of sacrifice, and getting burned-out trying to be everyone else’s savior. All because I wanted to emulate Jesus.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that I cannot emulate Jesus in everything. Instead of trying to suffer as much as he did, why don’t I try emulating how he approached his calling? Jesus listened to what God called him into, followed the plan God had for his life even when it was difficult, and accepted the suffering that came with his purpose. If we want to be like Jesus, let us listen for the purpose God has for our life, accept the suffering that comes with it, and make the “above-and-beyond” personal sacrifices that fit with that calling.

For me that meant saying no to a ministry position that I was expected to take on but that I desperately didn’t want and that didn’t fit who I was. It took a while to build up the courage to decline it, but once I did I found a ministry that fit me way better and that made just as great an impact on the world as the one I said no to. It still required a lot of self-sacrifice (as full time ministry positions tend to do), but not the kind that made me want to cry every other day.

Frederick Buechner said that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” You cannot possibly say yes to every “deep hunger” and every pressing need–there are far more of those than there are people who care to do anything about it. But the place where you will make the most impact is the area that ignites your soul, that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning, that allows you to be yourself so you’re not wasting energy to overcome your limitations but instead putting that energy into the work. That is your “deep gladness.”

Do yourself and the rest of the world a favor: Find your “deep gladness.” Help alleviate suffering in your own unique way. That is what it means to emulate Jesus and to be who he created you to be. And that is when self-sacrifice stops feeling (as much) like sacrifice.

May we and those we serve find the life that is truly abundant.

The caveat:
Sometimes “trial and error” is the best way to figure out what your calling/purpose is. Saying yes to as many different types of ministry opportunities and projects as you can (though not all at once!) can open up your eyes to things you’re gifted in that you otherwise would not have known. When you’ve given something a fair shot and it still doesn’t fit, then consider crossing it off your list and moving on to a ministry that might fit a little better.


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