“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.” — Malachi 3:8-12 NIV
Through the years, I’ve occasionally read stories of Christian martyrs, men and women who chose to be tortured and killed rather than renounce their affiliation with Christ. I’ve wondered whether I would behave the same way in their circumstances or succumb to a fear of suffering.
Praise be to God, no one is being killed in the U.S. today for an affiliation with mainstream Christianity. I’m not presented with the same choice those martyrs were. Nevertheless, some Christians complain about the privileged position Christianity has in our country. They say it creates a spiritual deterioration in the Church, leaving us to focus on gratifying our own desires. We need some sort of scarcity, hardship, unrest, they say—anything to get our minds off of ourselves1.
But hardship in itself is not virtuous. Scarcity, just like abundance, can be an excuse to focus only inwardly. Yet, hardship can be made holy if we offer it to God as a sacrifice. In fact, as Christians, we are called to offer our whole lives as a sacrifice to God. We are called to follow the example of His Son, Jesus, who did just that. We have been “crucified with Christ”2. And if we are willing to die to ourselves, and instead see suffering as an opportunity for growth, then God will use the suffering for our good.
God promises to redeem our suffering. The grace that God gives us in hardship is not limited to those who experience physical scarcity, but is accessible to anyone, through voluntary sacrifice. This is what a tithe is: a choice to deprive oneself of something good and surrender it over to God. We read in Malachi that God promises abundance to those who tithe: “’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…Test me in this,’ says the Lord, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it’”3.
This is what the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard sees in the biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham, who was willing to give up his most dear son in obedience to God, became a model to all Christians. Abraham offered to God the ground of his existence—Isaac—and in an unexpected turn receives back Isaac and a thousand more blessings besides.
Kierkegaard remarks of Abraham, “It makes my head swim, for after having made the movement of resignation, then by virtue of the absurd to get everything, to get the wish whole and uncurtailed—that is beyond human power, it is a prodigy.”4
God often rewards faithful sacrifice in unexpected ways. Jesus declares that only if we give up our lives will we truly live: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
It is not easy to surrender one’s whole life to God but this huge task can be done a bit at a time, little by little. Even the smallest sacrifice is transformed into an “aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9). Voluntary sacrifice is training to have the courage of those Christian martyrs. Voluntary sacrifice can take many forms. It can be a physical sacrifice: a tithe of money or a period of fasting but it can also entail offering an hour of work, a conversation with friends, or an unpleasant headache, up to God.
When we offer something to God, we want to make it the best possible offering. If we offer an hour of work, we can stretch ourselves to do our best work, as Jesus stretched himself out on the cross. If we offer a conversation, we can do our best to love our interlocutors. If we offer a headache, we can seek to endure it with the courage that Christ endured His Passion. With practice, we will be ready to offer our whole lives to Christ—spiritually, as the martyrs did physically.
Image: Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio
Bryce McDonald is a senior in Leverett House studying Philosophy.
|Walker Percy, in The Moviegoer, writes from this perspective: “The malaise has settled like a fallout and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.”
|Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie (1941), https://www.sorenkierkegaard.nl/artikelen/Engels/101.%20Fear%20and%20Trembling%20book%20Kierkegaard p. 22.