A journey from trauma to authenticity


Sacrifice is often perceived as noble. Today I ask the question is that always the case, or can it be an unhealthy, harmful practice?

When I was a teenager, I was an avid reader of missionary biographies. One of the biographies I read several times was that of Keith Green: No Compromise. He was an American singer-songwriter, and I listened to his music all the time. Here is part of one of his songs.

To obey is better than sacrifice
I don’t need your money
I want your life
And I hear you say that I’m coming back soon
But you act like I’ll never return

To obey is better than sacrifice
I want more than Sunday and Wednesday nights
Cause if you can’t come to Me every day
Then don’t bother coming at all …

And I’m coming quickly
To give back to you
According to what you have done

His message was that people needed to give everything for Jesus, and be willing to travel to the ends of the earth to spread the gospel, without counting the cost. He was lauded for his life of faith, and wanted as many people as possible to follow his example of being “sold out for Jesus.”

A big part of his message and motivation was that life was short, and any discomfort now was insignificant, compared to the glory to come. He preached that the end of the world was near. Life in the here and now was unimportant. It was simply urgent to evangelise as many as possible, as quickly as possible.

It was a heady message for a teenager, eager to please their Christian parents, and one I took to heart.

Keith Green died very young, in a tragic small airplane crash, along with 2 of his children. The plane was overloaded. Did he think God would prevent the tragedy waiting to happen?

The idea that sacrificing your life for God was what God required of us was preached by many in their sermons.  It has proved to be a very damaging message for many.

The idea of sacrifice is central to Christianity, and is glorified. It permeates Christian ideology and is the driving force, or excuse, for many a decision. Sometimes, it is a beautiful thing, when done with love, freely, and within the context of healthy balance. Other times, it does untold harm. More often that we might like to suppose, it is used to control, pressure or coerce.

Many church leaders teach, even urge, their congregations to sacrifice their time, money, gifts and talents for God and the programmes the church is running. “Your reward is in heaven”, they proclaim. “It does not matter if you are happy in this life. In heaven you will be full of joy for all eternity. So, sacrifice yourself now, and you will gain these great rewards.” And sacrificing yourself can feel very virtuous. The person can feel useful, of value and full of purpose. They feel they are making a contribution to a higher cause.

And there is always plenty to be done, of course. The poor are always with us. The children need Sunday School teachers. The youth need leaders. The tea and cake after church is always appreciated. The food bank needs run. The housebound need visitors. The list is endless. And that is without thinking of the foreign missions, climate change action and prayer meetings. Many people are able to freely, willingly and lovingly give their time and money to these causes.

And then, the balance starts to tip. Pressure is applied. Guilt kicks in. Everyone else seems to contribute so much more, we feel like a second-class Christian. People start to sacrifice more than they have to give, out of a sense of shame, or because they believe they should deny themselves, and believe they can have no boundaries. Maybe they believe the end of the world is imminent, and that their reward is in heaven. Perhaps they think it is what God requires of them. Maybe they worry what other people think of them. Often people give to excess because they feel the need to prove their worth, or gain love and approval.

And so, there is the destitute woman who relies on her neighbours to feed her children, giving her money to the Pentecostal pastor who tells her that this will give her favour with God. There is the mother who spends so much time running the creche, mothers and toddlers and coffee morning at church, as well as working part time, that she has no time with her own children. There is the single female missionary who repeatedly goes to a dangerous part of the city alone, because she is “called by God, and God will protect her.” Until she is sexually assaulted. There is the 8-year-old child sobbing themselves to sleep each night in a boarding school, because this is a sacrifice their parents have decided to make in order to share the gospel in a foreign land, and after all, the teachers at the missionary school have been called to care for their children. There is the wife sacrificing her own well-being by not speaking up about her husband’s abusive behaviour at home, because he is such a pillar of the church and does so much good there. The Christian worker/pastor/missionary burns out because they can never actually do enough to earn love, approval and self-worth.

We need to be very careful when we notice we are doing something out of a noble sense of sacrifice. If we scratch below the surface, the motivation is often actually our need to be needed, appreciated or accepted. We need to question whether it is actually causing ourselves, or others, harm.

And most especially we need to stop and examine ourselves when we are thinking of doing something that involves sacrifice for our children. Or if we are teaching our children to sacrifice themselves, before they have a healthy sense of self in the first place. The potential for harm is huge and can affect them for many years.

I do not think God needs our sacrifices. That makes no sense at all. Before we start giving to God or others, we need to be secure in knowing that we are loved and accepted, just as we are, just because we exist, warts and all. And then let’s stick to doing what is loving, healthy, and promotes the well-being of all, ourselves and our children included.


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  2. So sorry you are going through this burn-out phase Andrea , .and hope you are able to come to a place of rest in God, free from the pressures which you feel have been imposed upon you.
    Jesus came to give rest to the weary, may you find that in Him

    I have been following your blog and wonder if this book may be of help:
    Growing Slow by Jennifer Dukes Lee

  3. Chris

    We know that self sacrifice is not a concept unique to Christianity (perhaps there is actually more moderation in many evangelical circles than in Catholicism and other faiths) It’s not even unique to humans. Animals will self sacrifice.
    As you allude to, motivation to sacrifice is key and often motives are corrupted. It is wicked when churches or parents knowingly take advantage of this.

    I suppose what worries me about rejecting sacrifice as a positive quality though – is that the importance of loving one’s self, can be overtaken by a self centred ideology and self glorification- different all together and certainly not noble.

    1. I do think there are times when sacrifice can be a positive – when an adult with a healthy sense of self chooses to do so and knows their limits. The opposite extreme of entitlement is not healthy either.
      I think motives are key here, and so often our motivations are sub-conscious. What I am trying to de is bring to light some of the sub-conscious beliefs that can be driving us to unknowingly cause harm to ourselves and others.

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  5. Heloise Brereton

    I love your writing and can relate to what you share. It’s a subject I’ve thought about a lot having walked a similar journey. I guess the question is, who told us to make those sacrifices? Did Father speak to us by His Spirit, or well meaning people, or our own striving inner voice? Was I trying to copy someone else’s story? The answer to that determines much of the outcome.
    Jesus sacrifice was grounded in his fully formed, secure identity. ‘Jesus, knowing who He was and where he was going…took up a towel and served’ John 13:3

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