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ASK MISSION CENTRAL: QUESTION TWENTY-THREE
How do I put others’ needs above mine as commanded in Scripture, but still ensure my needs are getting met?
Coming from a liturgical tradition, sometimes I look for answers to tough questions in the prayers of the church. This question made me think of the Anglican wedding liturgy I grew up hearing at my home church. It includes a prayer of thanks to God for “sending Jesus Christ to come among us. . . and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.”
That one phrase is a little theologically-packed gem. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus didn’t just show us the way of the cross; he changed that way. He made it something new: the way of life. Jesus takes suffering and self-denial and puts his life in it, so that when we take up our cross and follow him, we find our lives in him. The prayer echoes Jesus’ words: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39 NIV).
The placement of this blessing in the wedding liturgy is poignant, one of the first phrases the priest says after the couple has exchanged vows. The prayer both warns and encourages the couple: This covenant you are making today will not be easy to honor. It will involve sacrifice. It will, at times, be fraught with suffering. It will be the way of the cross. But, in Christ, it is the way you will find your life, together.
Not a Zero-Sum Game
When we look at others’ needs in competition with our own, it’s easy to think about life as a zero-sum game. If I wake up early to get breakfast ready for the kids, I can’t get the sleep back. If I give money to a cause I care about, it’s gone. More for them, less for me.
But if the way of the cross is the way of life, then there’s a new dimension to self-sacrifice. When I get breakfast ready for the kids, I discover more of what it means to be a grown-up, and how loving children is a reward in itself. When I give money away to a good cause, I feel the spark of generosity in my soul and the freedom that it brings. These small gifts to others are only “sacrifices” in a superficial sense because I get something more valuable in exchange for them: a better, more joyful version of myself and my life. More for them, and more for me, too.
Now, this logic around self-sacrifice only works if you really value certain things. If you aren’t that interested in becoming a generous person, each donation may not feel like a net gain. But, deep down, most of us do have a strong desire to be generous. We have experienced generosity from God and from other people, and that sparks the thought, “I’d like to be that way, too.” This is true not just with generosity, but with being good in general—not morally fussy, but good in a free and joyful way. We are more likely to be convinced that we can’t be good than to feel sincerely indifferent about the prospect.
Consider any small sacrifice you might make to help meet others’ needs. Perhaps it’s the Salvation Army bell-ringer, or your co-worker’s mom’s GoFundMe page, or the offering basket at church next Sunday. Maybe it’s shoveling the neighbor’s driveway or doing the dishes on your roommate’s night after they’ve had a bad day. Let’s ask the question: Why not? Why not give? Why not make the sacrifice?
If you can give an honest answer to that question, it will surface something that’s going on in your heart. One answer might be that you’re struggling to pay the bills yourself. Another might be that it feels like one more act of service would push you to the point of exhaustion. In other words, there might be some fear in your heart. You think, “If I give, will there be enough left for me?”
That’s a perfectly legitimate question. It’s also one that Jesus was at pains to answer clearly and directly. In his most famous sermon, he said:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
(Matthew 6:25-26 NIV)
It’s a statement that flies in the face of our instincts for self-preservation. How can I be confident that my heavenly Father will really come through for me? Don’t I need to worry about my life? It seems like I need to worry about my life, based on my experience.
The thing about our experiences is that they are often self-reinforcing, for good or ill. If you never give because you’re always afraid you won’t have enough if you do, you’ll stay in that mode forever. The best way to prove that God will still care for your needs if you give is to give. We can test Jesus’ teachings empirically. Try them out and see if they are true.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore our own needs. In the same sermon, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11 NIV). Asking for our own needs to be met is entirely normal, a matter of course for our relationship with God. If we find ourselves locked into commitments that are damaging our body and soul, we may need to step back and reassess. It’s right to say “no” to things that leave no room for you to eat your own daily bread.
At the same time, “daily bread” sounds pretty simple. The challenge that Jesus puts to us is to trust that our needs will be met, not that our every fantasy of luxury will be fulfilled. Looking to others’ needs and our own looks more possible when we’re honest about what our needs really are.
Discerning what our needs really are, brings up the issue of motives. When Scripture commands us to serve others, mindful of their needs, it often appeals to the motive of love. In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul writes, “having the same love . . . in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (vv.2-4 NIV). When an opportunity to put others’ needs first presents itself, the power to say “yes” to that opportunity comes from love.
By the same stroke, we can tell the difference between the right kind of self-sacrifice and a destructive version of it by looking at motive. We might be motivated to “put others needs first” by something other than love: a fragile ego that gets reassurance when others feel indebted to us, or a workaholism that rewards constant activity. If we are making no provision for our own needs at all, we have gone beyond what Jesus asks of us, and may be laboring under a yoke of our own devising rather than his.
That being said, there are times when heroic self-sacrifice is called for, even to the point of setting aside one’s most basic needs. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread” (p. 75). In everyday life, caring for ourselves is part of how we can best love others. But in the last extreme, the same motive of love that caused us to draw certain boundaries before can galvanize us to give away everything in a situation that calls for it. The small ways that we practice self-denial every day—the ways we give away our lives to others—can build a strength in us that, by God’s grace, results in generosity even in the face of the most severe adversity.
The encouragement that the liturgy offers a husband and wife is true for all of us as disciples of Jesus: suffering and difficulty do not have the final word over our lives. Not only that, but God will even graciously work good out of the trials we face. Love often means embracing more suffering, not less. But when we do make such sacrifices out of love, we ultimately get back more in return. God will provide for our needs along the way as we do.
That means that we’re free to sacrifice for others like Jesus did for us. In him, we discover that the way of the cross is the way of freedom, the way of joy, and the way of life.
Image by Christelle Hayek on Unsplash
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