What are you giving up for Lent? In countless Christian churches and homes those words have echoed out this week. Fasting is a common practice in the season of Lent. From fish on Friday to giving up chocolate or Facebook or anything else you can imagine between Ash Wednesday and Easter, fasting has become a part of our lives of faith. When asked about what to do for a fast, we typically hear the following advice: Give up something that is important to you, and/or take on a good habit, such as reading the scriptures. You will hear all kinds of justifications for these actions: tradition, discipline, developing good habits, participating in the sufferings of Christ (this seems a bit farfetched). Explanations abound, but I contend the best one is this: We are trying to discover the best sacrifice.
Lenten fasting is a buffet where we pick and choose our way through a bewildering number of options. So where should you start? Like a buffet there may be more good things than you have room for. Choices often come down to personal taste. Should you give up some kind of food? Well if you have a few pounds to lose why not? Perhaps it isn’t pious enough if you’re doing it for your own benefit. What about taking up reading the Bible? No question that is a good and beneficial practice, but when will I fit it in my busy schedule? Maybe giving something up would be better after all. What makes a sacrifice good, or for that matter better than any other?
The word sacrifice may evoke thoughts of animals being slaughtered by people with primitive and superstitious ideas. Sacrifice is not simply a religious concept. It is used by all people all the time. At work we trade our present time for the capacity to purchase goods and services in the future. When we spend money on a car or public transportation we sacrifice our current and or future capacity to purchase things we need in exchange for the time we save when we don’t have to walk everywhere we go. When we save for retirement we exchange the freedom and security that money could give us today for the chance to live in greater freedom and security later in life. Perhaps most of life is spent in a tangled web of sacrifice to bring about our best possible life.
We make these sacrifices because we know that our actions matter. The way we conduct ourselves at any given moment matters, and the implications of even our smallest choices can mean big differences in future outcomes. For instance, if you save 50% of your paychecks to retire in style at 50 years old, at the cost of living in squalor today, is that a good sacrifice? Perhaps. But what if you spend the other half of your check on Marlboro Reds and die at 45? One bad sacrifice has rendered all sacrifices useless. The right sacrifice matters. One bad sacrifice and your life's work could go up in smoke. In light of that truth we understand that a good sacrifice may be good, but the perfect sacrifice—the one which can with certainty bring about a future worth living—is what is most needed.
Early in the book of Genesis we see the question of sacrifice dealt with in the story of Cain and Abel:
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” – Gen 4:1-7
This story is strange for a number of reasons. First of all, it doesn’t work like we think it should. There is no mention of why one sacrifice was accepted and the other not. Though God sees the offerings He gives no explanation as to why Cain's was not accepted. There is no mention of purity of motivation or intent.
Perhaps Cain learns, as we do, that sacrifice can be a crapshoot and that he ought to try better next time. We engage in this type of sacrifice when we look at the outcomes of our offerings and seek to improve our condition by improving the quality of our offering. This makes perfect sense in our temporal life because we want to limit our suffering and maximize our benefits. The fatal flaw of this approach becomes apparent when we try to apply the same logical approach to our sacrifice to God. With God our sacrifices are not meant to relate only to our temporal lives, but to our eternal selves.
Cain is enraged when he sees that his own sacrifice is rejected by God, but his brother's is accepted. Perhaps he saw the offerings as equivalent because they each offered the best things they had. Abel brings of his flocks, Cain of his crops; maybe you bring your time, while your neighbor brings his wealth. If sacrifice is about the purity of the giver, or even the purity of the gift, then this approach should yield the desired result: God's blessing. This didn't work for Cain, and it probably doesn't work for you. The reason is that we think of our relationship to God as we think of our relationship to the future: inputs beget outputs. You get out of it what you put into it as the old saying goes. But with God, thankfully this is never true.
With God, sacrifice is not simply a question of putting in the proper thoughts, words, and deeds so that the blessings can begin to flow. With God, sacrifice is not a means to curry favor at all, but a way to point to something else. I believe the sacrifice of Cain could have been offered with the best and purest of intentions, and Abel's offered begrudgingly, yet the outcomes would have been the same. Because God was not looking to teach mankind proper motivations through sacrifice, he was teaching us to look for His Son.
Abel's sacrifice required shedding the blood of a firstborn in its prime. It required death, and from participation in consuming the firstborn’s broken body life is given and sustained. It brought into the human drama of fallen sinfulness and redemption something which was not fallen and sinful to be sacrificed, and through that sacrifice brought God's blessing.
Abel's sacrifice was better because it pointed more clearly to the sacrifice God had promised to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In the sacrifice of Christ, God truly sacrificed. He gave up His life in the present to bring about a better future. He shed the blood of His Firstborn in His prime. And by participation in that death, by consuming his broken body and shed blood, life is given and sustained. By bringing His sinless Son into the human drama of fallen sinfulness He has brought about the redemption and eternal blessing of all who believe.
Jesus’ sacrificial death is the perfect sacrifice because He is sinless, the spotless Lamb, and it is for you. What if you chose the wrong sacrifice? Rest assured God hasn’t. Even if you chose the wrong sacrifice there is hope because in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ God has chosen you. He has esteemed the sacrifice of Christ and given you the blessing and life that comes from it.
So, what are you giving up for Lent? Perhaps the best thing to do would be to give up on your desire to bring the perfect sacrifice, and simply accept the perfect Sacrifice that God has given for you.