18 April 2014

When Sacrifice Is Wrong

"Come in."

I'd called the student for a private conference because I knew the failing grade was unexpected. He looked at me questioningly then took the essay I held out to him. I watched in sadness as his eyes grew large; he shot me a look of disbelief. I didn't wait for an outburst.

"It wasn't the assignment. It was a good essay but not what you were told to do."

He didn't accept that. "I worked really hard on this."

"I can see that. It shows your effort."

He set his jaw as he considered another approach. "I sacrificed sleep. And sports. And dates."

I shook my head. "The rubric laid out the requirements. You wrote a different paper entirely. You didn't follow the directions. I'm sorry, but your sacrifice doesn't replace your negligence."

"You're being unfair."

I took a deep breath. "Actually, it would be unfair to grade your paper as if the rubric didn't exist."


Now, if you had a terrible experience with English classes in your past, you'll have to excuse my story here and try very hard to see it from a teacher's perspective. As much as I'd wanted to pass that young man, I couldn't. Bound to my grading rules and the essay's instructions, it was my responsibility to fail him. This was done with the hope that he would learn to follow directions and realize that effort alone cannot replace quality precision.

In case your heart is breaking for this student, he did have the opportunity to bring his grade up with subsequent writing assignments, and he never again swayed from the rubric's instructions. This wasn't a lesson on rigidity--squashing creativity. (In fact, some essays I assigned were open-ended.) It was a lesson on obedience. I believe he learned it.

It's very similar to the lesson that Saul learned when he wrongly saved cattle and other spoils of war that God had told him to destroy. Thinking himself doing a worshipful act, Saul then set up an altar to sacrifice the pillaged cattle as an offering. When Samuel came on the scene, he had these words for the king of Israel:

Has the LORD as much delight in 
burnt offerings and sacrifices 
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice...
I Samuel 15:22


If I had been Saul, I think I would have had some excuses ready to argue: "I was worshiping the Lord! I was serving Him. It was a sacrifice with good intentions!" In fact, Saul does say these words: "But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God at Gilgal" (vs. 21).

But Samuel's point is clear: God desires obedience.

Around the same time I had to deliver this failing essay to its resistant author, another student and I were conversing about the meaning of love.

Is love a feeling?
Is love an action?
Is love like compassion--caring for someone else's needs?
Is love like favor--putting someone above others you know?

Finally, we came to a definition that satisfied us: Love is sacrifice. 
Love does. And love gives to the point of costing you something.
But then we read this verse together--"to obey is better than sacrifice"--and realized that God requires more than even a personal sacrifice when we express our love to Him.

He desires obedience.

So now I look at my own life--my 2014 life as a wife and mother, as an expat and volunteer, as a Christian wanting to live out my love for God. Do I qualify myself according to my sacrifices? or according to my obedience? Isn't it easier to list and count sacrifices? (You can fill in the blanks.)

1. I have given up ______ for my children.
2. I have given up ______ for my husband.
3. I have given up ______ to serve God overseas.
4. I have given up ______ for the cause of Christ.

These aren't bad things. In fact, they sound very good.
But good can be a hindrance of best. Likewise, sacrifice can be a hindrance of obedience.

Therefore, we must put these in the right order. Obedience must be our first priority.
While sacrifice will be included under obedience, what we give up will never contradict what God has clearly instructed us to do. For example, a missionary cannot excuse his neglect as a parent with the demands of Christian service. Likewise, a mother cannot excuse her temper problems with tales of how much she has sacrificed for her kids. In God's eyes, obedience--not sacrifice--is measured.

It's tempting to be pragmatic about missions. "Yeah, my marriage is a wreck, but it had to be done to reach this people group with the gospel." Or "Sure, I'm running up an enormous debt, but it's necessary to keep doing God's work." God doesn't contradict Himself, and He certainly doesn't require us to accomplish His will. (It will be done regardless, and we're blessed to get involved.) So neglecting a holy and blameless life in order to bring a greater sacrifice will not please Him. "Doing what works" cannot replace "doing what's right."

We have our Rubric. It is the Word of God. 
And we will be "graded" not on how much we sacrifice but on how much we adhere to the Bible's commands.

Imagine an argument like the one at the beginning of this article. Imagine an argument with God about His judgment:

"I don't deserve this grade. I sacrificed so much. I moved away from my family. I volunteered so many hours. I helped at the church. I gave up so much for my children's sakes. I worked so hard!"

And our just God might reply in this way: "Your sacrifice does not replace your obedience. My Word gave instructions. You have worked zealously, but you lived according to your own standards and neglected mine."


When Samuel walked up to Saul after the king should have completely destroyed the Amalekites, Saul greeted him with "I have carried out the command of the Lord," but Samuel answered: "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of oxen which I hear?" (I Samuel 15:13-14).

I imagine that when I likewise boast in my sacrifices while hiding my sin, the bleating of sheep drown out any semblance of an obedient and worthy follower of God.

I say proudly,
"I am a good Christian 
because I've given up so much..."  
but all God hears is 
"Baaa Baaa Baaa." 

Praying for an obedient heart,

Are you also tempted to measure yourself according to your sacrifices? What in God's rubric (the Bible) do you need to focus on obeying today?

To read more about sacrifice, come join the conversation at Velvet Ashes' The Grove.

Related articles you may also appreciate:
Just Obey: My cry to my kids and God's to me
Good Works, Faith, and the Fruitless Fig Tree
Phrases That Steal Praise: Dissecting Christianese


  1. Wow! Awesome lesson and what a great illustration. I am sharing this across social media today because it really needs to be read and taken to heart. God doesn't so much look at the sacrifice, but our obedience. That is a hard - but necessary - lesson to learn. Thank you for such an awesome article. Would you please link this up on Monday at my MM&M Linky Party? I would love for my readers to see it. The website is www.missionalcall.com Have a blessed Easter.

    1. Rosilind, thank you for this encouragement! This is a hard lesson I'm learning, and I'm grateful to know these words can help others to see the necessity of obedience too. I'll definitely be over at MissionalCall on Monday. Thank you for the invitation. ^.^

  2. Yes! We can stack up a huge pile of sacrifices in our service for the Lord, but without love we're only a resounding gong. It IS easier to list and count the sacrifices, and to qualify ourselves by them. But in doing so, we miss the heart of it all. So glad you shared this, Malia.

    1. Your verse from I Corinthians 13 goes perfectly with what's written here, Danielle. I so appreciate your work at Velvet Ashes and the weekly focus I'm gaining through The Grove. Thank you.

  3. Malia, I'm so glad you wrote this in response to the Velvet Ashes word prompt "Sacrifice". I think this is a huge issue for people on the field. We always get told that our sacrifices are so grand and amazing. But sometimes they are disobedient and unhealthy all together. Thanks so much for this post. Sacrifice means nothing unless it's the right kind done in obedience to the Father.

    1. I agree completely. People back home tend to recognize sacrifices most and praise missionaries for all they give up. I find it especially heartbreaking to see people stubbornly stay in Christian service (and clearly falling farther into disobedience) because that work feeds their egos.

      Thanks for reading. I'm blessed to hear that you feel this angle of sacrifice is a needed perspective. :)

  4. What a powerful piece! And love the idea (well, maybe not LOVE, but I think you get my gist) that sacrifice can be a hindrance to obedience.

    1. I get your gist. :) My kids will often use that excuse on me. "I did this for YOU!" when they explain why they didn't obey right away. I think adults do the same thing. :)


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