The term sacrifice typically seems to come with a connotation of pain and struggle. We often tend to think of sacrificing as something we would rather not do if we can avoid it. Why would sacrificing anything be a joyful action? And what does it have to do with happiness?
Examples of sacrifice
No doubt, we have all made sacrifices. I have sacrificed a lot of time, money, and other activities for my education and career. I have sacrificed sleep to take care of sick animals. Every Sunday morning, I choose to sacrifice other interests for attending church service. Certainly, parents typically know a lot to tell about sacrifice. According to Christian doctrine, even God Himself sacrificed for mankind by sending his Son to die and atone for our sins – a powerful concept.
Right now, I’m sacrificing my time and my mental energy for this future blog post. This blog, as insignificant it may in reality be, is of value to me, and creating and maintaining it requires the regular deliberate choice of directing some of my resources towards it. For the most part, I do not perceive it as painful, but rather as quite satisfying.
Sacrifice is the evidence of true love
One common denominator in the examples above is that all sacrifices are made for something else. When we make a sacrifice, we give up something good for the sake of something else of higher value. The thing of higher value is simply our reason for doing something. Sacrifice means dedicating our resources – such as our time, mental, physical, or emotional effort, finances, and energy – toward something that is important and dear to us.
The common usage of the word sacrifice actually always has positive implications. If someone’s drug addiction leads to divorce and loss of parental rights, we would hardly say the addict sacrificed his family for his addiction. Sacrifice implies a focused and deliberate choice. If we give up something good for something of lower value, we would not call it sacrifice, but rather an unfortunate decision based on poor judgement.
Everything worth doing – every goal we actively and consciously pursue – involves sacrifices, because it requires for us to invest some of our resources. The less conscious an action is, the less would we be inclined to think of it in connection to sacrifices. We would not usually think of someone who spends all day zoning out in front of a TV as making sacrifices, because such a person does not appear to be actively pursuing a goal or a positive higher value.
The following quote by Elder John A. Widstoe (LDS General Conference April 1943) explains beautifully what sacrifice means:
Sacrifice is the evidence of true love. Without sacrifice love is not manifest. Without sacrifice there is no real love, or kindness… We love no one unless we sacrifice for him. We can measure the degree of love that we possess for any man or cause, by the sacrifice we make for him or it.
Sacrificing everything for God
Coming back to the topic of joyful living, recent experiences and insights have lead me to understand that ultimate contentment and fulfillment depend on truly sacrificing everything we have for God. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, this is referred to as the law of sacrifice. I remember very well how I felt the first time I was exposed to this idea. It sounded a bit scary, overwhelming, and frankly just a bit extreme and weird. I was not at all sure that I could or wanted to make such a commitment. Why would anyone even seriously expect this of me?
Since then, I came to understand that this law of sacrifice is not only perfectly reasonable, but even a logical requirement and a guide towards a consistent, focused, and fulfilled life. Let’s assume that everything that is good comes from God (according to Moroni 7:12), meaning in reverse that God is the source of all goodness. Our joy then fundamentally depends on our relationship with God. To be fulfilled in life, God – the source of everything good – has to be our highest value.
Sacrificing everything for God means putting God first and submitting our will to His – another concept I only recently came to understand (although in truth I’m sure I’m really just beginning to grasp it). Submitting our will to God’s will can also sound intimidating, especially to someone as stubborn and independent as myself. Actually, it simply means aligning all our values, goals, and actions with our highest value: God. It means if something is not in agreement with our highest values and standards, we will reject it. There is nothing automatic or easy about arranging our life this way. It is a process that requires continuous scrutiny and awareness. Without being deliberate and very aware of our choices and motives, we will be pulled in many directions, pursue many goals half-heartedly, only until something else comes along or until a spur-of-the-moment decision throws us off our chosen path. Putting God first requires persistence and careful introspection.
This deliberate and careful approach to life with clear priorities, values, and goals, offers a formula for continuous positive growth and for becoming the person we want to be: the best version of ourselves that can look us in the eye and say he/she honestly tried his/her very best. It is not a simple process and does in no way provide the answers to all our questions. It remains up to us to fill in many of the details and flesh out the scaffold that this concept provides. Therefore, the life that results from it can vary widely from one person to the next.
Fulfilling the measure of our creation
Thus, sacrificing everything for God helps us analyze our life and make decisions that are congruent and consistent with our highest values. As human beings, we generally strive for internal consistency and avoidance of cognitive dissonance. A consistent life requires a clear ultimate value according to which we arrange all other aspects of our life. This then allows us to be consistent and genuine, which has everything to do with being joyful and content with who we are. Arranging our life this way – and following through with living it accordingly – requires us to develop, appreciate, and strengthen qualities that are uniquely human, such as thorough self-reflection and creative intelligence. Therefore, sacrificing everything for God even seems like a necessary ingredient to fulfilling the measure of our creation and human existence.