I recently learned something gross about cats. Cats are not my favorite animals (blame my allergies), so maybe I am biased for not finding this adorable, but I’ve heard at least three friends discuss this phenomenon lately: as a gift, sometimes cats will bring a dead thing to a spot where their owners will find it with great delight…or, y’know, horror: A dead bird in the middle of the bed. A wing in a purse. A mouse on the rug. The theory is that the felines are grateful to their owners for giving them food, so they reciprocate by bringing an offering to their owners to demonstrate their thanks and affection.
As much as I am repulsed by the thought of finding a dead bird in the middle of my bed, the idea of sacrifice-as-offering is one that I am familiar with.
Romans 12:1 reads: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
I was raised on this verse – and still love it today. Out of thankfulness to the Giver of life, we want to show our gratitude. The way many of us who grew up in the evangelical church learned to express our true and proper worship as kids/teenagers was by what we didn’t do: drink, smoke, say bad words, hang out with non-Christians, or have premarital you-know-what. Sure, we sometimes had to fight feelings of smugness (“don’t be proud”) because so many other people seemed to not do as good a job at being a living sacrifice; but yielding to fleshly desires was the least we could do for Him. In fact, the more difficult the sacrifice, then the greater your faith, love for God, and jewels in your crown in Heaven. Case in point: missionaries. No kid wanted to actually be one (it sounded terrible) but we could agree that they were living the ultimate life of sacrifice, and they were definitely going to be entering the pearly gates through the VIP entrance.
In high school, I felt particular conviction about something that many of us were taught was wrong, “according to Scripture:” interracial relationships. By the early 90s, interracial couples were noticeably being written into storylines on TV and in the movies; many in the church argued that it was being pushed down our throats. This left me with an uneasy feeling when I was at a friend’s house in high school, and the group popped in a VHS of The Bodyguard, starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. My conscience groaned that this wasn’t right, and I shouldn’t partake, so I sat in this person’s kitchen for an hour and a half while the rest of the group watched the movie. I didn’t make a big deal out of it or tell them they shouldn’t watch it; but it felt wrong for me to watch it, and sacrifice was my true and proper worship. As awkward as it was to wait it out in the kitchen, there was some internal sense of reward for ‘being good’ and doing what was I thought was right.
Of course, what I later came to understand was that the Bible does NOT condemn interracial relationships, and the roots of this bad teaching are grossly grounded in racism. (“Do not be unequally yoked…” was one of the verses used to condemn interracial relationships. Catch that word? Unequal??) Completely deplorable; I denounce this idea today. I am embarrassed that I ever subscribed to this view, and that I took a stand and sat in my friend’s kitchen like a weirdo over something I was wrong about, an idea which was fueled by a very un-Christlike belief system that has hurt many people and continues to hurt people today. I thought I was sacrificing for Jesus, but I learned that my conscience is not the same thing as the Holy Spirit; Jesus would not have encouraged me to see mixed-race relationships as any less “good” than all-white ones. My conscience can convict me and I can still be wrong.
This is the trajectory of life and faith, though, right? … We learn and grow and mature and inevitably look back on our former selves with a face palm: what were we thinking?? God’s Word doesn’t change, but we do. And our understanding does. And when we know better, we do better.
When our 8th grade daughter came out as gay last February, we were attending a large non-denominational church where I’d served since I was a teenager, where I’d met and married my husband, where we dedicated and were raising our 3 daughters…a church we loved which, in line with its former Baptist roots, subscribed to a traditional teaching on homosexuality as sin. Since I was raised with the same understanding, this was never a point of contention until we suddenly had a gay child and knew in our hearts that this characteristic was not a product of her sin, and did not feel that she needed to somehow change her orientation, or confess, or be punished. We were told she was still welcome. But as her mom, I wanted to know, is that the same as being wanted and accepted, just as she was? Was she safe?
I remember church youth group. I know how the teaching is, and all the what-not-to-dos. I remember the regular emphasis on purity and waiting for the right opposite-sex spouse to one day know, in the biblical sense. I could envision my daughter sitting there week after week, listening to everybody else freely share their experiences and hopes and dreams and deciding whether to keep hers to herself, or to share and possibly receive judgment. Kids can be cruel, and so can adults. It was suggested, as an incoming freshman, that she go to summer camp with the high schoolers. And all I could think about was, what if another student texts her mom from camp and says that there is a lesbian! in her cabin, and the mom freaks out and calls the youth leaders, and they react by pulling my daughter aside and gathering up her sleeping bag and pillow because she was going to be sleeping in another room with the adults for the rest of the week. What kind of traumatic thing would it take for my daughter to never want to have anything to do with God again? And how could we expect an organization to prioritize and protect her emotional well-being when the very thing that puts her at risk is seen as wicked? To what extent might my daughter be sacrificed as part of someone else’s true and proper worship?
A few posts ago, I shared the imagery that I held in my mind the first night that my daughter came out: like Abraham standing over Isaac with a sword in his hand, ready to sacrifice his son, a sacrifice he believed God wanted. In a similar sense, I felt that if I had responded to my daughter negatively, in a way that might’ve been consistent with the traditional pov that I’d held and therefore, what God wanted?, that it would have crushed her spirit, broken our relationship and severed her young spiritual roots.
And if you’re looking for a fun activity sheet for your Sunday Schoolers:
But is human sacrifice really what God wanted from Abraham? This is a horrifying idea, but ultimately, no. He stopped the sword before it plunged into his son. Was He really testing Abraham to make sure He was his #1, and that Abe would do anything to prove his loyalty, even at the expense of his own child? Or was Abraham participating in a ritual which would have seemed normal in his culture – so God could teach him that this was in fact not something He desired? Reinforcing this idea, there are multiple verses in the Bible that insist God desires MERCY, not sacrifice.
Is this Abraham-and-Isaac imagery so awful because we believe that a father murdering his son would have delighted the God we serve, or because a father was so willing to do it as his true and proper worship whether it was really what God wanted from him or not? Was this OT illustration a way of revealing a wonderful truth to mankind in a most memorable way: that God was not in the human sacrifice business, but rather in the mercy business?
Let’s take another look back at Romans 12:1: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
There it is, “God’s mercy.” We understand His mercy to be a life-giving gift of compassion and kindness, even when it was not deserved. So maybe the author of this verse was saying something like:
Y’all, please get this: Because of God’s compassion and kindness towards you when you did not deserve it, go and do the same thing for others – turn your body into a walking-and-talking mercy machine, and show compassion and kindness to everybody, even those whom you think don’t deserve it. This is how you can say ‘thank you’ to God.
Now let’s just quickly cross reference this mercy idea with the New Testament…
This is how Jesus loved the sinner:
Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Many in the LGBTQ community have been mischaracterized, demonized, and rejected by the church, in the name of Jesus, as if this is how He has asked us to show our loyalty and gratitude to Him. But please do not for a second think that it brings Jesus delight when we drag any wounded or lifeless soul to the middle of the room for him to find, as our offering. If we think this is what Jesus wants, we are mistaken.
We’re all trying to learn and grow. Our family is still working through many things and trying to figure things out. What I hope you will join me for in the New Year is:
- Recognizing that our consciences are not the same thing as the Holy Spirit; we can feel convicted about something and still be wrong
- I realize I am still susceptible to this even now and am holding things loosely
- Learning better and doing better; being known for what we ‘do’ more than what we ‘don’t do’
- Being real-life mercy machines, showing compassion and kindness to our neighbors and especially our enemies
- Never wounding, or making a sacrifice out of, another person and never falling for the lie that this is what brings our Lord delight
Happy New Year!