What our sacrifices reveal
There are many superficial indicators of faith in my life:
- I marked myself as ‘Christian’ on the most recent census. But plenty of people select that as a mere label.
- I have lots of Christian books on my bookshelves. But you could take the view that I’m just an interested student: after all there are plenty of atheists studying theology!
- I attend church on a Sunday. But you might say that I just go because I enjoy the social side and it makes me feel better about myself!
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these trappings of faith. But each of them can be easily explained by motives that have nothing to do with saving faith. If these surface-level indicators are all I’ve got, how can I know that my faith is real in the eyes of God? Sacrifice reminds us that we are done with sin
In the book of 1 Peter, the Apostle Peter writes about living godly lives in the midst of a society that does not know the living God. He tells believers that they belong to another kingdom, and so will be “foreigners and exiles” in this life (1 Peter 2:11). He prepares Christians to expect to “suffer for what is right” (1 Peter 3:14) and that non-Christians will “speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ.” In itself, this sounds rather tough and a bit discouraging. But. actually, Peter intends to show us how this position of being distinctive and facing opposition actually helps to remind us who we really are:
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.” – 1 Peter 4:1
Choosing to suffer with Jesus (or make sacrifice for Him) is exactly when faith becomes real. It’s easy to “do Christianity” when it is comfortable. At the point when following Jesus becomes truly sacrificial, this can be for many people the decisive moment when His lordship is made clear. If we take a stand against our culture’s values and surrender everything to God, it is then truly apparent (to our culture, to God and to ourselves) that we are serious about our faith. But “taking a stand” here isn’t so much about external actions, like signing petitions or lobbying decision makers in power. Rather, it is for me to have a serious conversation with myself about whether I am going to take up my cross and live for Jesus in a way that is costly.
Unglamorous acts of worship
Such sacrifice is not glamorous and it’s rarely going to win acclaim from those around us. The way of the cross is a quiet, often unnoticed discipline. It should not feed our pride, nor be trying to impress God. But living distinctive lives, where our sacrifice is real to us every day, reassures us that we are truly His. We will be prepared for when hard times come, when opposition is fierce, and when doubts emerge in our own minds. We will already have trodden the path of decisive discipleship. We will look back and see that we chose this narrow path a long time ago, and we will be less inclined to turn back.
“As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.” – 1 Peter 4:2
Let me be clear that I’m not proposing sacrifice for its own sake. Going on a tough diet or making yourself take cold showers does not make you holy! Indeed, many non-Christians make huge sacrifices for their career, their children, their body image or even to set themselves up for a dream retirement. But these kinds of sacrifices are not what Peter is calling us to here. In Colossians 2:23, the Apostle Paul challenges the value of self-denial as an end in itself: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Rather, our sacrificial choices must be acts of worship that align us with our suffering Saviour: “[we] do not live the rest of [our] earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God”. The purpose of our sacrifice is all-important: if we sacrifice out of obedience to God, it can transform a decision from one of grim determination into one of joyful service.
For the same-sex attracted believer, their sacrifice may become very apparent in their relationship decisions. Some people will sense a call to singleness - their unmarried state will be a constant reminder to them that they are set apart from the world’s insistence upon an active sex life. Instead, their spiritual life comes from their obedient determination to stay sexually pure. Other same-sex attracted people may be able to get married to someone of the opposite sex: often these marriages can be wonderful, albeit not without their challenges. But, even for those who marry according to the biblical definition of marriage, their decision to resist the lure of a same-sex marriage is a reminder to them that they have chosen the narrow way.
Getting off the fence
Sometimes faithful Christians look at the debauchery of the world and think, “They look like they’re having fun. Am I missing out?” But Peter reminds us that we are now to consider those behaviours as being from a past life:
“For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do - living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” - 1 Peter 4:3
Do we ever look back on memories of old sin with fondness? If so, we need to take Peter’s words here to heart. Our past lives may have been governed by sensual indulgence. But that was the past life. Indeed, that was a wasted life. Nothing in those behaviours has any lasting value. On the contrary, that old way of living darkened our lives and took us further away from God. The closer we are aligned with the will of God, the more we will see the past life as a waste of time and lose our appetite for it. In contrast, the longer we sit on the fence, and toy with old desires, the more we will taunt ourselves with old passions, and risk returning to the wasted life. If we can not only get off the fence, but walk well away from the fence, then we will increasingly see the old ways of living as consigned to history. We won’t be tempted to peek through the knotholes in the fence at old temptations, and they will increasingly lose their grip on us. Practically speaking, this probably starts with the radical disposal of any objects or contacts that connect us with that past life. But other people may be offended by our choice to abstain from their way of living:
“They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.” - 1 Peter 4:4
We need to be ready for criticism. Leaving behind “wild living” will certainly stir up surprise. And Peter tells us that people may respond to our withdrawal from these behaviours with abuse, perhaps interpreting our abstinence as being judgemental. We certainly shouldn’t adopt a disapproving posture towards them, but we can’t stop our pure living shining a light on their lives. Indeed, we enjoy fellowship with God when we walk in the light (1 John 1:7). To prepare for inevitable criticism, we need to value God’s favour more than we fear the criticism of the watching world.
The reality of our faith
Do we ever doubt the reality of our faith? How can we convince ourselves that we are true believers and not just superficial ones? After all, Jesus told his disciples that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 7:21).
In summary, 1 Peter 4:1-4 shows us a way to demonstrate that our faith is real. If we can look back on genuine sacrifices that we have made in our Christian lives, then we can see decisions that only make sense if we have faith in God. We will be encouraged and assured that our faith is real. And as we continue to put distance between our new life and our old “wasted life”, we will know that we are set apart from the world and its ways. Our attitude to costly living need not be a reluctant, self-pitying one. Peter calls us to “arm [ourselves]” (1 Peter 4:1) with Christ’s attitude of embracing sacrifice, because it sets us apart and helps us to know that we are His forever.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2023 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Autumn 2023 edition of Ascend