Self-sacrifice can be exhausting. It can be painful, arduous, and largely thankless. Moreover, no shortage of people stand ready to take advantage of our willingness to serve. Nonetheless, few messages are more consistent in the New Testament than Christians being known for our sacrificial spirit (Romans 12:10).
A picture intrinsic to our sacrifice reflects the nature of Christ (John 13:34). In fact, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts us to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). How do we do this and not lose ourselves? In other words, is it possible to be self-sacrificing without being self-obliterating?
1. Anchor Your Worth in God
First, in order to be confidently sacrificial, we must rest assuredly in our true value. This may seem like therapeutic Christianese at first glance, but hear me out. Oftentimes people are sacrificial in order to feel valuable — either internally (to themselves) or externally (to the world and to God). But we can never do enough to fill the giant void that the craving for self-worth creates. While we may have moments when our sacrifice is emotionally rewarding, those moments are fleeting and insufficient. We will inevitably find ourselves empty and hurt.
On the other hand, if we allow God to shape and define our worth, we are free to empty ourselves without the fear of losing ourselves. My value comes not finally from what I bring to the table, but from the one who brought me there.
God has made me in his image, a gift unique to humankind throughout all of creation (Genesis 1:26–28). More than that, he has seen me — the very real, very selfish, sinful me. He’s even seen the me that I haven’t seen yet because he knows every single thought I will ever think and every action I will ever take (Psalm 139:1–6).
My thoughts and actions habitually betray my lack of love and trust, and yet God willingly gave up that which he loved most in order that I might be his (John 3:16) — not just some opportunity that I might be his, but the certainty that I would be his and become a part of his family, a fellow heir with Christ (Romans 8:16–17).
That is the place — the place of God’s own self-sacrifice — where I find my real value. And knowing that God grounds my salvation in his own heart to be self-sacrificial is the foundation for my own self-sacrifice.
2. Draw Your Energy from God
Second, we must know from where the energy to be self-sacrificing comes. Too often we strive for self-denial in our own strength. But trusting in ourselves to deny ourselves is an oxymoron. Self-sacrifice is not refreshing to the ego, but often feels like death. And doubly so when our sacrifice seems to be in vain.
While our own effort is vitally important, it is empty without the catalyzing of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). Counting others more significant than ourselves is an activity that starts with, is borne along by, and finds its fulfillment in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, sacrifice which doesn’t start with Spirit-dependent prayer and trust should not be expected to yield spiritual satisfaction.
It is often when we find ourselves at the end of our own abilities that God’s grace in us superabounds (Ephesians 3:14–21). So, let us not too quickly withdraw when we find ourselves gassed in the marathon of lifelong sacrifice, but rather redouble our efforts through God’s word and prayer. Through our perseverance, God’s grace may be made more apparent to the world and ourselves.
3. Sacrifice Yourself for God
Third, we need to understand our own heart when it comes to self-sacrifice. Too often our self-denial is little more than window dressing on our desire to please people or control them. When it fails to accomplish these goals, we feel hurt. We may even blame God (which is always sin).
What makes this even more complicated is that even rightly intended motivations are often wrongly prioritized. Wanting someone to be helped, get better, or feel more loved becomes the primary focus, not bringing honor to Jesus (Colossians 3:17). And when motivations, even good ones, get top billing over the glory of God, we are setting ourselves up for the sort of disappointment that leads to weariness in well-doing (Galatians 6:9).
4. Set Boundaries with God’s Help
Lastly, we have biblical grounds for proper boundaries. Not every relationship that requires self-sacrifice is in itself sustainable. If the relationship is with someone who makes a profession of faith, then they too are required to show love and respect, as well as sacrifice (Ephesians 4:25–32). When Christian relationships habitually lack the fruit of Christian maturity, it may be time to reassess our involvement (Romans 16:17–18). That should not end our acts of self-denial, but rather refocus them in areas where fruit seems to be more forthcoming through the leading of the Spirit.
It also doesn’t necessarily mean the death of those relationships. Paul, for example, was frustrated with the lack of maturity in John Mark, and refused to let him go on one of his missionary journeys (Acts 15:37–40). But later Paul counted him as invaluable to his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11).
It is a little trickier when exercising appropriate boundaries with non-believers. On the one hand, we are told to go the extra mile — to sacrifice above what anyone would expect — in order that the aroma of God may be perceived in us (Matthew 5:38–42). We reflect something almost unspeakably beautiful in the grace, mercy, and love of Christ as we lay down our lives not just for friends and family, but also for those who would consider themselves our enemies (Romans 5:8–10).
On the other hand, while we are to be poured out, we are not to be unwisely used up. Times come when we must cut ourselves off from those outside the body of Christ (2 Corinthians 6:14–18; Titus 3:10; 2 Timothy 3:1–9). The keys seem to be sanctification and glory. If the relationship is not helping in our own sanctification and bringing glory to Christ, then it is time to reevaluate.
That said, do not be hasty in boundary-making. It is easy to get hurt, scared, or offended and decide that a relationship must come to an end. Sometimes our sanctification and God’s glory take a long, tortuous route. Let the Holy Spirit guide you through Bible-soaked prayer over this relationship. Making a boundary too quickly can be just as detrimental as not making one at all.
Self-sacrifice is painful, problematic, and peculiar, but it is part and parcel to the Christian life. Understanding where our value, energy, motivation, and even boundaries come from helps us to ground our giving in the grace of God, which is the one place where we will never find ourselves completely empty.