A recent conversation with a good friend shone an unflattering light on my personal struggle between sacrificial and selfish living. We were actually talking about her life, and how she’s facing a career vs. motherhood dilemma, which consists of whether or not to accept an unexpected full time job offer coming about six weeks before the birth of her second child. I told her that’s a tough choice to make—either way, you end up sacrificing something, whether it’s your career goals, or time with your children, and her response to that was something along the lines of “Ughhh! I want all the things, and none of the sacrifices!” At the time, I made light of her words with some offhand remark like, “Yep—wouldn’t that be nice!” in order to convey the utterly unrealistic desire she had expressed. The remark stayed with me, though, and I came to realize a few days later that even though my head understands that sacrifice is an inevitable, and particularly for believers, edifying aspect of life, that knowledge has not fully penetrated my heart.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” As a Christian, I give full intellectual assent to the fact that following Jesus requires sacrifice. If the goal of my sanctification is to become more like the Jesus described in Philippians 2, the one who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” dying to self is necessarily entailed. I know this to be true, and I’m giving it lip service at the very moment I’m writing this. I call it lip service because the thoughts, feelings, and actions that spring from my “deceitful” heart suggest otherwise. I still want what I want, no sacrifice necessary.
But unlike my completely transparent two-year-old, for instance, my selfish motives are buried insidiously beneath a surface of what could technically be considered selfless choices I’ve made as an adult—to get married, to be a teacher, to be a mom. All of these are excellent opportunities to practice what the Bible preaches about putting the needs and wants of others before my own. And yet, what I’m learning is that making that initial choice doesn’t just seal the deal once and for all for your life of humble service: I’m married, I’m a teacher, I’m a mom, so now I’m automatically selfless! Glad I can check that off my list! On the contrary, I’ve found myriad ways to put myself first in each of those capacities, on a daily, if not hourly basis, which is a pretty horrible track record for someone aspiring to live sacrificially. Thankfully, I don’t have to rely on my own efforts to accomplish this. As the hymn we frequently sing at City Pres reminds us:
Lord, I need You, oh, I need You
Every hour I need You
My one defense, my righteousness
Oh God, how I need You.
As the first line of the chorus states, imitating Jesus’s example of service and sacrifice is impossible without a constant acknowledgement of my dependence on him to do it. And the truth expressed by the third line of the chorus, that because of his perfect obedience in life and death on the cross, Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to me, frees me from the despair and frustration that would otherwise consume me for continually trying and failing to live sacrificially. Instead of focusing solely on my imperfect efforts, tainted as they are by the fact of my selfish sin nature, I can begin to see the daily call to die to myself as a way of expressing my gratitude for the amazing gift of God’s grace:
Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
And where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me.