Discover more from That GirlBoss Theologian
The "Sacrificial" Christian Life? (Part 1)
I’m not sure if you have noticed, but Christians today seem to speak a lot about “self-sacrifice” or “personal sacrifice” as a fundamental—and fundamentally noble—aspect of the life of discipleship.
We are increasingly speaking (and writing) about how following Jesus means giving up a lot of stuff. Stuff that, quite frankly, is hard—perhaps even painful—to give up. It seems that following Jesus comes at the cost of some of our most deeply held desires and dreams.
A flashpoint for this thinking is particularly found in contemporary Christian discussions about singleness and sexual abstinence. More and more, being godly in celibate singleness is accounted to be a costly act of personal sacrifice. Such a life is increasingly framed to be one of noble self-denial. At times it can even be spoken about as a form of martyrdom.
But is it?
Is being single as a Christian (which, it should be said, is always the result of a complex interplay of choice, circumstance, change and context, and all that within the good purposes of God’s sovereignty) truly a “sacrifice”? Is remaining sexually abstinent as an unmarried Christian truly “costly”? When we give up on those deeply held desires and dreams (whether they be of marriage, a satisfying sex life or anything else for that matter), are we genuinely involved in the act of self-sacrifice? Are we engaging in self-denial, for Jesus’ sake? Are we emulating his sacrifice?
No. I don’t think we are.
At least, not in most cases.
Our increasing tendency to speak about forgoing those desires and dreams as being acts of self-sacrifice is inadvertently informed far more by worldly rather than biblical thinking.
The “Sacrifice” of Celibacy
Take Christian celibacy or sexual abstinence (or whatever name you want to give to "not having sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman”). Where would you go in Scripture to find that not ever having sex/remaining a virgin is not just a matter of missing out on something genuinely good, but a matter of deep personal “sacrifice” for Jesus’ sake? A giving up of something essential to our human identity? A forgoing of something that brings deep existential fulfilment such that we might celibacy “self-denial”?
You wouldn’t because it isn’t there. Instead, that thinking is straight out of 21st Century Western Ideology 101. It comes from the contemporary playbook in which we are told that sex is how we most fundamentally understand and express ourselves. It’s powered by the present-day notion that sexual essentialism is the key to existential fulfilment.
It’s the world that holds sexual activity to be so fundamentally vital to human existential experience that to not engage in it is to enact great self-sacrifice. It’s the world that says that to go without these things is an act of noble self-denial.
On the other hand, God's word says that refraining from having sex with someone you are not in a lifelong exclusive marital covenant with is not, after all, a costly act of personal sacrifice or immense self-denial. Instead, it says it is simply not sinning.
For myself, an opposite-sex attracted unmarried Christian woman, to face the prospect that I will likely not ever have the sex I desire to have with a man is not an act of personal sacrifice. It’s an act of Christian obedience where God has me right now. It is good for me, loving of others, and glorifying of God.
For my same-sex attracted unmarried male friend to face the prospect that he must say no to ever having the sex he desires to have with a man, is not an act of personal sacrifice. It’s an act of Christian obedience where God has him right now. It is good for him, loving of others and glorifying of God.
Are we really willing to speak of not sinning as “self-sacrifice”? What exactly are we sacrificing? The misuse of someone else’s body for our own corrupt purposes? The abuse of our own body for our own corrupt purposes? The misuse of God’s good gift of sexuality for our own corrupt purposes?
Friends, being committed to not having sex while we are single is not an act of self-sacrifice or noble self-denial. It’s an act of wonderfully ordinary Christian obedience. To think otherwise is to be discipled by the world’s thinking on the place and purpose of sex rather than by God’s thinking on these things. To speak of celibacy as “sacrificial” is to say that the world has got it right when it makes sex essential.
Yes, at times, Christian celibacy in singleness can be hard, complex, difficult and saddening. (I write from personal experience). But it is obedience, not sacrifice. It brings blessing to our’s (and others’) lives, not simply cost.
The “Sacrifice” of Singleness
I’ll try and keep this one shorter. Is Christian singleness “self-sacrificial”? Nope. Moving right along now.
Just kidding. Mostly.
I’ve never been married, but from what I observe, it seems pretty great (most of the time). And God’s word confirms that. Marriage is a good gift from him. A divine blessing. A wonderful part of this creation.
And so, not having received that good gift can bring genuine grief. But not having received that good gift does not a sacrifice make.
If my friend has received a good gift, while I am not bestowed with that same good gift (or perhaps not in a position to receive it), I’m not making a costly sacrifice. I just didn’t get the same good thing she did. That is not the same thing as me making a sacrifice.
You see, that being unmarried is self-sacrificial is also straight out of 21st Century Western Ideology 101.
It’s the world that holds being romantically partnered so fundamentally vital to human existential experience that to not engage in such a relationship is to enact great self-sacrifice. It’s the world that says spending your whole life going without that type of relationship is an act of noble self-denial.
On the other hand, God's word says that singleness is not the absence of a good. Instead, it is its own good. How do we know this? Because the Apostle Paul said so. (Oh, and as I explain in my forthcoming book, Christians throughout most of our history also agreed with him). God’s word says that far from being a costly act of personal sacrifice and immense self-denial, being single (for whatever reason and whatever season) is <furtive whisper mode engaged> better than marriage.
Are we really at the point where we are willing to designate the embracing of a God-given good to be an act of noble self-sacrifice?
Friends, to think of singleness this way is to be discipled by the world’s thinking on the place and purpose of romance rather than God’s thinking. To speak of singleness as “sacrificial” is to say that the world has got it right when it idealises and idolises the romantic relationship as not just a uniquely good human relationship but as the essential human relationship. When it makes that relationship into a foundational human need and even right.
At times, Christian singleness can be hard, complex, difficult and saddening. (I write from personal experience) But it is a good, not a sacrifice. It brings blessing to our’s (and others’) lives, not merely the absence of blessing.
Sacrificing the World
Of course, it’s not just singleness and celibacy which we contemporary Christians often speak of with reference to “self-sacrifice”, “personal sacrifice”, and “self-denial”. Any number of our deeply held desires and dreams get caught up in this paradigm. More and more, we frame the life of dedicated discipleship as being calculated according to the “costs” we are each willing to nobly count for Jesus’ sake. Of the way our sacrifices mimic his.
Perhaps some of those sacrifices are indeed legitimate sacrifices. That is, perhaps there are occasions on which we actively forgo one genuinely good and godly thing in favour of another genuinely good—or better—and godly thing. I’m still not convinced that “sacrifice” is the right way to think about that. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is. If we are truly honest with ourselves, most of the time, what we call such “sacrifices” and “costs” are no such thing. Most of the time, the desires and the dreams we embrace, linger, and cultivate are self-interested, self-motivated and self-absorbed. Most of the time, those desires and dreams are inspired by our corrupted, sinful nature instead of that compelled by godly righteousness. Most of the time, they are about what I want, what I need, what I deserve.
The world says that not pursuing such desires and dreams comes at a great cost to our personal existential fulfilment. The world says that our own personal actualisation in them must be pursued at all costs. The world says that to forgo these things is nothing less than profoundly genuine self-sacrifice.
But these are the world’s words. Not Scripture’s words.
So what about Scripture’s words, then? After all, Scripture does indeed speak of the sacrificial nature of Christian life. It speaks of the life of discipleship as being one of self-denial, correct?
Ah. That’s all in Part 2.
Subscribe for free to receive new posts from me