Sacrificial Love

Presented by the Rev. Ann Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Tad Meyer, husband and wife priests of the
Episcopal Church

 

The first definition of sacrifice in the Dictionary speaks of it in terms of an offering of an animal, plant, human life or some other material possession to a god or deity as an act of homage, obligation or atonement. The next definition, however, takes a more conceptual slant, suggesting that sacrifice involves the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. Sacrificial love is an enormously important component of a healthy intimate relationship but it is often expressed and experienced in terms of the first as well as the second definition. Like so many human dynamics and emotions, sacrificial love has its dark as well as bright side. It can serve as a wonderful and graceful expression of a deep and penetrating intimacy or it can become something that actually inhibits and erodes the growth of intimacy through unintentional coercion and manipulation. This morning Ann and I are going to focus our remarks on each side of this dynamic. I will spend some time primarily reflecting on some of the potential problems that can arise with loving sacrificially and Ann will speak to the potential benefits and glories of sacrificial love.

As you might have already guessed, the major factor between the dark and light sides of sacrificial love has to do with our intentions, motivations and expectations. When we exercise sacrificial love we are, as the second definition suggests, surrendering what we prize or value for something we believe has a higher value. In other words, we are putting what we believe the beloved wants or needs above our own needs and desires. In this sense, sacrificial love is the ultimate expression of compassion. As we discussed a few weeks ago, compassion is when we not only understand the needs of our intimate partners but when we take them on as our own. When that identification leads us to root our actions in that compassionate connection, putting their needs above our own, we are making a sacrifice for the sake of our love. Now how can such an unquestionably meritorious action go wrong?

I remember once counseling a woman who was struggling with her calling to ordained ministry. A few years earlier she had entered the process for ordination in the Diocese of Pennsylvania where I was the chair of the Commission on Ministry, the advisory body which evaluates and reports to the Bishop and Standing Committee on the suitability of folk for ordained ministry. This woman had actually impressed the Commission and they had whole heartedly recommended her for what is known as postulancy, the first rung on the ladder to ordination. In the normal scheme of things, after one is made a postulant for the priesthood, you go off to Seminary for three years. Mid-way through your seminary experience, you are again evaluated by the Commission which then decides whether you should be made a candidate for holy orders – the second rung on the ladder - and if so, when you complete your degree you are interviewed for the third and final time by the Commission who then pushes you to the top rung, recommending to the Bishop and Standing Committee that you be ordained. As a postulant, this woman was now ready to begin her theological education but the closest Episcopal Seminary was in New York City which would involve spending the better part of each week there. She had a husband and two children, ages 10 and 12 and she understandably didn’t feel that she could or should leave them for that length of time. So she decided to sacrifice her cherished plans until both her children were into their teens, a delay of three or four years. At that time, she felt that her absence would be less traumatic and problematic for the girls and for her husband. In other words, she put the perceived needs of her family above her own deep desire to move toward ordination, an act of sacrificial love. The problem with her decision was that it made her unhappy. She didn’t mope about or act out, looking depressed or snapping at her family, but the wind was taken out of her sails and she did not have her usual spark and enthusiasm. She was in a holding pattern and despite her excellent intentions, she felt like her life and dreams were stalled. After about six months, her husband called a family meeting. He and the girls presented her with a different perspective. They thought that she should start seminary as soon as possible. They did not want her to continue to make the sacrifice a) because they didn’t think they really needed it – they could cope with her absence – and b) because they did not want to be responsible for her understandable unhappiness and frustration. They would much rather have her at home less if when she was there she was animated by her old joyful and light-hearted spirit. Reluctantly, she agreed and she graduated in three years and was ordained that Spring. She told me afterwards that the family not only coped with her absences but that they actually grew closer together in spite of them, enjoying their time together even more than before. They were all happy because she was living her dream which manifested itself in the return of her joyful enthusiasm.

In a somewhat similar vein but with some darker theological overtones, I remember reading a disturbing account of sacrificial love in a friend of mine’s interesting historical study entitled Between Heaven and Hell. In this work, Robert Orsi delved into some relatively recent devotional practices and prejudices that he found in contemporary Roman Catholicism. He told the story of a woman who was hospitalized with a fatal form of bone cancer, a disease that was enormously painful as it progressed. The woman had a teenage son who was constantly in trouble and she worried about his future constantly. In the hospital, she refused all pain medication believing that she could offer her pain to God as an atoning sacrifice for her son’s faults, a sacrifice which would eventually bring to him God’s graceful protection and favor.

The problem with both of these attempts at sacrificial love is that they are actually rooted in that first understanding of sacrifice. The woman postulant sacrificed her cherished plans in an attempt to do homage to God by being a good wife and mother, even if it meant embracing a way of living that would make her unhappy and unfulfilled. She thought she knew what was best for the family and so she sacrificed her happiness to accomplish it. What she failed to understand was that she was inadvertently asking them to sacrifice something they valued even more – her infectious energy and enthusiasm. The Roman Catholic mother sacrificed the comfort of a pain-free death in a misguided attempt to atone for her son’s sin with her own offering of pain. Behind both of these expressions of love rests a notion that to make a sacrifice involves taking on something that is painful and disconcerting for the sake of others. These woman took things that they loved and they then placed them on the altar of their hearts and burned them in an attempt to evoke and provoke the love and mercy of Almighty God. But God does not want such sacrifices, I am sure. God loves us and wants us to make decisions that are filled with joy, fulfillment and love.

I think that deep down inside of us all there is a primitive piece of spiritual DNA. It is a spiritual gene that we inherited from ancient religious traditions that programs our desire for sacrificial acts. In response to these genetic impulses, we would all like to have a god who responds to sacrifices – a god who we can do business with, who barters and trades favors and benefits in accordance with discernible rules of sacrificial commerce. In the Gospels we read about Jesus visiting the great court in the Temple of Jerusalem where pious folk came to buy their sacrificial goods which they then offered according to prescribed formulae. The money changers made sure that the exchange was not polluted with coins that bore any irreverent images, insuring that the sacrificial transaction was not damaged or compromised by currency that bore an image of an emperor god or some other foreign deity. Here in the Temple Court was a god who you would deal with, a god whose favor you could court with sacrificial gifts and whose forgiveness could be bought with a pair of doves or a young goat. Is it really any wonder that such a vision of the divine economy brought out in our Lord an unprecedented burst of anger and violence, the only one recorded in the New Testament. Jesus knew that his Father did not do sacrificial business. He was not a God whose love could be bought by coins – however pure and undefiled – or whose favor could be coerced with the offerings of dead animals. Yet despite this clear Scriptural image and mandate, we all still fall prey to this deep, primitive desire to pray to a God we can do business with. How often do you find yourself praying to God that if God will only do what you want and need than you will certainly reciprocate by making some suitable sacrifice, changing your behavior or making some other sacrificial offering. Like that desperate woman in the hospital, we will offer God painful sacrifices if only we can be assured that they will illicit divine forgiveness and favor.

I remember once a stewardship appeal that was made by a parishioner of mine who also happened to be a professional fund-raiser for a large university. In his speech he told the congregation that he often told donors that they shouldn’t give until it hurts but should give until it feels good. Needless to say, he was not suggesting that they make smaller gifts so that they would feel better about their financial status and security. No, he wanted them to make sacrificial gifts that pushed the limits of their generosity but his point was that such a sacrifice should actually make you feel good about yourself rather than feeling pain, guilt, anxiety or fear. One of the real problems with the whole notion of sacrifice is that people seem to assume that it will be painful and will somehow diminish their lives and their resources. But let’s return for a moment to that other dictionary definition that suggested that sacrifice was the surrendering of something desirable for the sake of something of higher value. Certainly we will be giving up something that we value but there is also the possibility that what we gain is of even more value or higher esteem. That is the mind-set behind my fund-raising friend’s quip. You should make a sacrificial gift that will actually make you feel better about yourself because your act of generosity is serving something that you value even more than your money and the false sense of security that it brings.

Far too often, I’m afraid, in the context of intimate relationships sacrifices are made that are firmly rooted in the first concept of sacrifice rather than in the latter. I remember playing with my grandchildren when they were crawling infants. Inevitably they would grab something off the coffee table or some other low surface that they shouldn’t have and now the trick became, how do you get them to give up this glittering new prize without causing a major melt-down with tears and loud wailings? The answer, of course, was to find something that they valued more, that held even more promise of enjoyment, and then to hold it out to them. Immediately they would drop the crystal paperweight to greedily grasp the bright colored cloth baby book. In a funny way, that is what sacrificial love is about. It is about putting down something you value, beautiful and enticing as it may appear, in order to lay hold of something of infinitely more value: the expression of love offered to the one you love. Sacrificial love may cause us a momentary spasm of loss and regret – our crystal paperweights are often very beautiful and alluring – but once we let go, we can freely embrace and experience an even more valuable act of love which should bring joy both to the lover and the beloved.

I’d like to bring these disjointed remarks to a close with a warning. Before we make a sacrifice, we should make sure that it is actually one that our intimate partner will ultimately appreciate and value. There is nothing more toxic to an intimate relationship then when a sacrifice is made and the person for whom it was made is either unappreciative or unsupportive. You should never have to say, as my mother often did, look at the sacrifices I made for you. Sacrificial love is always offered with no strings attached which is a big part of the sacrifice. You should not, for example, make a gift of sacrificial love expecting that it will be reciprocated or that it will change a person’s attitudes, behavior or feelings. As you have heard us say several times during these presentations, you cannot change anyone even by making sacrifices for them. You can only extend your heart in sacrificial love and hope that it will be welcomed and valued and will ultimately inspire the other person to deepen their sense and appreciation of your shared intimacy. If you are making a sacrifice in order to change another person, it will inevitably create patterns of guilt, anger and misunderstanding that will undermine its ultimate value. It is, therefore, a good policy to test the waters first, to see if the sacrifice you want to make is something that will be greeted with appreciation and support.

A final testimony, I have been blessed in my life by being the recipient and the agent of sacrificial love and when it is anchored in a heart filled with a spirit of generosity and is expressed as a free gift with no strings attached, it is unquestionably one of the most powerful incentives to enhance and strengthen something of inestimable value – a healthy, loving intimate relationship – but that is something that I hope Ann will speak to in more depth.

Wendel W. Meyer