Wednesday, May 4, 2011


This morning, as the nearby Baptist church began playing Good Friday music on its electronic bells, including, “Ah, Holy Jesus” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, a particular couplet from the latter struck me. It goes:

All the vain things that charmed me most,
I sacrifice them to His Blood.

Now I’m a T.B., a term my mother made up (I think) to describe my father when she was annoyed with him. It stood for “Technical Bastard,” but decline the “B.” and it fits me just as nicely. And T.B. that I am, the thought occurred to me that vain things do not make a suitable offering to God! Although of course we all know what Isaac Watts meant when he wrote that. Or do we? Let's be sure.

The confusing bit is, we use the word “sacrifice” in (at least) two different ways. The proper meaning, in Christian theology, is a gift offered to God, with which one hopes He will be pleased, and which you also are pleased to give – just as you are pleased to give your child birthday presents, and you hope he or she will be pleased, too. Well, okay, it’s more like crocheting an intricate tablecloth for the new Princess Catherine and feeling pleased and honored to present it to her, and hoping she will see fit to use it sometimes.

But popularly, “sacrifice” means giving up something one would rather keep and the giving up is unpleasant or difficult, as in “Ah, the sacrifices I make for you!” or “Due to the current economy, we’re going to have to make some tough sacrifices.” It means self-deprivation. And the worst part of it all, when this connotation creeps into theology, is that there’s often an added assumption that the more pain and suffering the sacrifice involves for him who offers it, the more pleasing it is to God! Now obviously (I hope), that’s just plain perverse.

And yet there is a bit of truth in it, which I think needs teasing out. The element of truth is that love is not easy. It’s love, of course, that we offer to God, and many forms of true love are difficult.  (True love as distinct from mere emotional warm fuzzies which are not at all difficult.)  Forgiving others, for example, is a form of the love we offer God, and so are obedience, repentance, works of mercy, etc. The trouble is that to do these things requires that we overcome our passions (envy, anger, sloth, lust, gluttony, pride, greed, etc.) Figuratively speaking, we kill these – or “sacrifice” them to God. They aren’t what we literally offer God, and an ugly offering they would make if we did! But they are what we have to give up to be able to offer Him good things from a clean heart.

And there’s a bonus here - not really a bonus but the heart of the matter - which is that although giving up our sicknesses is not easy, it’s good for us! It’s liberation, it’s healing, it’s enlightenment; it’s growth, it's joy. Because it turns out the sacrifices of love we offer God are things He wants from us for our own sake! (Obviously, He doesn’t need anything from us.) Our sacrifices to Him are ordained for our sake, because no matter how much we love Him, He loves us infinitely more.

P.S.) This is doubtless what Issac Watts meant. And to give credit where it's due, Watts better described the literal meaning of sacrifice in the last verse of that hymn:

Were the whole ream of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

(Of course, love doesn't literally demand anything, but that's just me being a compulsive T.B. again...we know what he meant; he was being poetic.)