There are many daily sacrifices that can be offered, which are not directed specifically toward the needs of a loved one. We are expected, for example, to sacrifice our own bad habits or attitudes, for the sake of our spiritual growth as well as for spreading blessings around us. There’s a particular pinch to self-denial here, for we may not see much concrete result, as we might if we were serving others in a more explicit or material way. We only experience the unpleasantness of “going against the grain” of our habitual self-indulgence. Yet grace is at work here as well, and we must persevere in faith, not expecting immediate rewards for every sacrifice we offer. We don’t want to find that we are “already repaid” (Mt. 6:2-6; 16-18), when it comes time to step up and receive eternal rewards!
It is a traditional Catholic spiritual practice to “offer up” the various and inevitable setbacks, disappointments, sufferings, sorrows, etc, of life as so many sacrifices to God, for our own spiritual benefit or as a kind of intercessory offering for others. The Pope briefly mentions this in his encyclical Spe Salvi, and he encourages Catholics to renew the practice. It’s not mere resignation to simply offer up our sufferings or penances, as if this were only a last resort to salvage something good from them. It is truly a positive and grace-bringing activity, uniting us to Jesus’ great sacrifice and thus adding immense value to our little ones. In the end, we may discover that the real meaning and value in our lives was not the things we accomplished in our efforts to change the world or better the human condition, but simply in the faithful and trusting offering of the sacrifices that each day brought, for that is an ongoing act of fidelity to God’s will, a “yes” that, once given, was never taken back.
We may still need some encouragement, however, some framework for a perspective that helps us to live a sacrificial life, so we don’t end up just grudgingly offering occasional sacrifices out of a sense of duty or obligation. Perhaps, then, we should first realize that nothing in this world is “owed” to us, but all is a gift from God. If all has been first freely given to us, then it shouldn’t be so hard to give some of it back, when that is required. “What do you have that you have not received? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1Cor. 4:7). If we see all as gift, then not only is boasting excluded but also possessiveness, and if one is free from possessiveness, one is free to give, to offer a joyful sacrifice. In the long run, we can’t hold on to anything anyway, so we might as well begin now to learn how to give and to share, how to let go. For in the end we have to let go of everything but our immortal souls and the relationship to God that we have cultivated—or not—in this life. And how shall we face God after spending a life of selfishly clinging to things we must leave behind? An attorney for a very wealthy man was once asked, after the man died, how much he had left behind. The attorney wisely answered: “All of it.”
To live a sacrificial life is to acknowledge our fundamental poverty, our status as pilgrims. We can deny ourselves here—for the good of others and for our own spiritual progress—because we know that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the City which is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Because this is so, we are exhorted: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (v. 16). Despite the disdain that is often expressed toward Christians who look to Heaven as their true and ultimate fulfillment—and who thus are willing to suffer patiently the hardships and even injustices of life in a sacrificial spirit—this is of the essence of Christianity. Christianity without the hope of Heaven is just a better way to live in a meaningless world, but the end result of our lives would be no different than that of any evildoer. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of men” (1Cor. 15:19).
There are a few more things we can do in order to acquire the inner dispositions that will make offering sacrifices easier. The first is to deny lust in all its forms, particularly the lust for pleasure, possessions, power, or prestige. If we are ruled by desire for these things (and this is what most advertising intends to accomplish in us), then the notion of sacrifice will seem abhorrent, restricting, senseless. Let go of lust, and freedom returns—freedom to do good for others and to develop one’s own capacity for generosity, charity, and service. If we try to draw all things to ourselves like some magnet or black hole we will be burdened with the dead weight of useless attachments, but if we sacrificially give ourselves for others, we will be like the sun, gradually spending ourselves while shedding light and warmth all around.
We should also try to develop a sense of gratitude to God for all things, so that any sacrifice will seem to be a gift from our abundance, even if we do not really have much to give. We may be poor, but we will enrich many; we may have nothing, but we will possess everything (2Cor. 6:10). Gratitude, like the mortification of lust, gives us a sense of freedom, a sense of confidence in God, so that making sacrifices comes easier, and we’re not too interested in tallying our losses. Grateful people are joyful people, and joyful people are more willing than others to make sacrifices. They will be the ones who bear the most spiritual fruit from them—thus further increasing their joy and gratitude!
Another virtue to develop is humility. This is part of what underlies the perspective that all is gift and nothing is owed to us. Pride makes us tight-fisted—not only in the material sense of refusing to give to the needy, but in the spiritual sense of refusing to let down our defenses, refusing to admit our need for repentance and self-denial. No one wants to sacrifice his own cherished vices, grudges, opinions, etc. “The line dividing good and evil runs through the human heart,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “and who wants to cut out a piece of his own heart?” Yet the humble person knows his own weaknesses, knows what sacrifices need to be offered if he is to grow in the likeness of his Lord. It is to Jesus we must turn. “Learn from me,” He said, “for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt. 11:29). A humble person has no pretensions; he is willing to pay the cost of discipleship, to live a sacrificial life in imitation and in union with Him who loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20).
Finally we return to love. Love and sacrifice are inseparable. Each is more pure and genuine in the presence of the other. Sacrifices are authentic and fruitful only when offered in love, and love is true only when it embraces the element of sacrifice. Even unbelievers may be able to make the sacrifices love requires on a human level. But our love and our sacrifice are infinitely enriched when we unite them to the ultimate sacrifice of love which was the crucifixion of Christ, which He voluntarily offered so that our sins might be forgiven and we might share with Him the everlasting joy of his heavenly Paradise. Let us learn from Him not only humility, but love and the meaning of sacrifice. Take it to prayer and contemplation. Sacrifice is something we ignore only at our peril, for to refuse to sacrifice is to refuse to love; it is to refuse to enter the divine mystery of Cross and Resurrection.
So let us not look at Lenten sacrifices piecemeal, forcing ourselves to give up this or that for 40 days. Let us make of our lives a sacrifice of praise to God, which includes all of our efforts at charity, self-denial, spiritual growth, and whatever it takes to be faithful to Him who loved us first and who did not hesitate to sacrifice his own life for us. We were made for this—we are structured for sacrifice—because we were made for eternal life.