Only recently, however, have I come to understand that there is, in the spiritual experience of most people, a prerequisite to sacrifice. People will not make the sacrifices that they need to make in order to follow Jesus if they do not believe that God is at work in the world (and, often, at work in their world). The connection between our confidence that God is at work and our willingness to sacrifice for Him may not be immediately apparent, but I think that it will become so as we reflect on Scripture and on our own experience.
A Biblical Case Study: The Story of Gideon
The story of Gideon in Judges 6-8 is a particularly good example of how faith and sacrifice are related to one another. In order to understand this relationship, we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, did Gideon have to give up anything to follow God’s call? It is worth remembering that Gideon lived in a pagan town (it wasn’t supposed to be pagan, but it was), and he was a low status member of his clan. Sure, the enemies of Israel were making things hard for everyone, but rallying the Israelites to renounce their devotion to Canaanite deities and to fight their enemies could have cost Gideon everything—his wealth, his standing in his community, and even his life.
The second question that we need to ask ourselves is this: Does Gideon doubt God’s activity in the world, and especially in his world? Notice how Gideon responds when he is greeted by God’s messenger.
“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
Judges 6:13 NIV
It is easy to look down on Gideon for how he responded to the angel, but think about the situation from his perspective. He grew up hearing stories about God’s mighty deeds and about God’s care for the people of Israel. But his lived experience showed little evidence of that care or that power. War and starvation killed Israelites by the thousands. People in his own family had died at the hands of the Midianites (cf. Judges 8:18-19). And now he is supposed to put his own neck on the line in order to defy Israel’s enemies and rid the land of idolatry?
Perhaps this is why God is so patient with Gideon. Over and over again, God allows Gideon to test Him. On one occasion, God even provides Gideon with encouragement before he expresses his fear (Judges 7:10-14). God called Gideon to participate in His work, and God knew that Gideon would not take the risk of doing so unless he was assured that God would be with him.
A Personal Example
I empathize with Gideon because I have felt the way that he felt. There was a significant period of my life during which I was unwilling to make the sacrifices that were needed for me to grow as a Christian. I wasn’t convinced that God was still at work, and I certainly wasn’t convinced that He was at work on my behalf.
Years of emotional distress and unanswered prayers had shattered my faith. I didn’t even realize what I had lost until New Testament scholar Craig Keener came to our Spring Colloquy in 2014. He was promoting his book Miracles at the time, and he shared with us the piles of evidence that he had uncovered for God’s present and powerful activity in the world.
It felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. If God was still active in the world, I reasoned, then perhaps He was still active in my life. Perhaps God had not forgotten me.
As I sought to live into this newfound hope, my faith, both in God’s presence and in God’s goodness, began to grow. And as my faith grew, my perspective began to change—and in a way that Gideon may not have experienced. I began to see some of the ways that God had been with me even in my sojourn in the spiritual and emotional wilderness. This new perspective reinforced my conviction that God is with me, and, in so doing, it allowed God to challenge me to be more committed to Him.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Why should we walk away from sin? It is sometimes our only comfort in a world gone insane. Why should we follow Jesus to the cross? Don’t we have enough trouble already? Why should we lay down our lives for God and for our fellow human beings? Will our sacrifice accomplish anything?
When we wrestle with questions like these, we are really asking whether God is trustworthy. And, unfortunately, no parent or pastor, no theologian or friend can do the wrestling for us. Each of us must confront the fact that (as my wife likes to point out) Christians starve, suffer violence, die of cancer, experience divorce, lose children, or are the victims of injustice. At the same time, we must find a way to affirm that God is good, that God is active in the world, and that God keeps His promises. If we don’t find a way to strike this balance, then our faith will not result in the kind of sacrifice that Jesus requires of us. We will decide that the pain isn’t worth the gain. If, however, we can understand our journey in light of God’s goodness and love, we will be more likely to make the sacrifices required of us.