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RS/MP Lesson 26: “Sacrifice” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on January 10, 2011

1. The Meaning of Sacrifice

The question at the end of this section is fantastic (it’s a new question, by the way, not found in the older edition):

Why is it important to sacrifice as the Lord asks without expecting anything in return?

In last week’s lesson on fasting, our quorum spent some time discussing the manual’s question, “What blessings can we receive when we fast properly”? Frankly, some of the discussion that ensued from that question made me a bit uncomfortable, precisely because the discussion focused so much on “expecting [some]thing in return.” This a great question for challenging that sentiment. If we only show devotion to God with an expectation of receiving something in return, then we will not be ready to live in the presence of God (which is the topic of the final section of the lesson).

I’m not sure, however, if or how this question follows from the scripture mentioned in this section, namely Matthew 6:33.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Here, if we seek God’s kingdom first, there is an explicit return promised—namely, “all these things.” What things? Food and clothing, according to verse 31 (the whole section discusses this, starting in verse 24). We also read this in 1 Timothy 6:8: “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (cf. Philip 4:11; Alma 29:3). So, I think the spirit of the question in the manual is correct, though technically it seems that according to the particular scripture cited we are justified in expecting at least food and clothing in return for our trusting in God.

2. The Law of Sacrifice Was Practiced Anciently

Regarding Moses 5:5–8, I think it’s important that Adam offered sacrifice without knowing why he did so. This also supports the idea above that Adam was not offering sacrifice with any specific return in mind. God asked him to sacrifice and so Adam obeyed without first demanding an explanation or a promised reward.

In this day and age there is a tendency to demand a reason for everything that we do, to weigh the costs and benefits of every action that we undertake. Faith and trust, however, work according to a different principle. Faithful obedience entails acting without demanding an explicit promise of how our action will be rewarded. God commanded Adam to sacrifice and Adam obeyed without first asking why. In fact, I think the burden of discipleship is easy only when we completely lose ourselves. If we are only partially converted, only willing to give up part of our lives, I think discipleship feels taxing, heavy, and painful.

3. We Still Must Sacrifice

The manual says, “Even though sacrifice by the shedding of blood was ended, the Lord still asks us to sacrifice.”
Then the manual quotes 3 Ne 9:19–20 which includes the command, “And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” I think it’s worth noting that not only are we still commanded to sacrifice, but we are to be sacrificed. This idea will be elaborated below.

4. We Must Be Willing to Sacrifice Everything We Have to the Lord

The manual, citing Romans 12:1, says, “we should become living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God.” As noted above, I think this suggests a different way to understand the idea of sacrifice. It’s not (just) that we are to sacrifice for God, but are we are to “become living sacrifices.”

The phrasing of Romans 12:1 is to “present your bodies a living sacrifice.” The term “present” is, according to the Christian theologian James Dunn, “drawn from the technical language of sacrifice.” Dunn goes on to suggest that in calling for a sacrifice of “your bodies,”

[Paul] takes the language of the cult, in its characteristic abstraction from daily living, and reverses the relationship. If “the holy place” is where sacrifice is to be offered, precisely in its set-apartness from the commonplace of everyday usage, Paul in effect transforms the holy place into the marketplace. He “secularizes” the sanctuary by sanctifying the business of every day. [The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 544]

I think this idea of “sanctifying the business of every day” is very much in line with this section of the lesson. I’m reminded of the the Zoramites who would pray on the Sabbath, “never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again” (Alma 31:23). This is the kind of “set-apartness” devotion that I think Paul
is preaching against.

Also relevant to this idea of a consecrated body is Elder Christofferson’s remarks from last General Conference:

A consecrated life respects the incomparable gift of one’s physical body, a divine creation in the very image of God. A central purpose of the mortal experience is that each spirit should receive such a body and learn to exercise moral agency in a tabernacle of flesh. A physical body is also essential for exaltation, which comes only in the perfect combination of the physical and the spiritual, as we see in our beloved, resurrected Lord. In this fallen world, some lives will be painfully brief; some bodies will be malformed, broken, or barely adequate to maintain life; yet life will be long enough for each spirit, and each body will qualify for resurrection.

Those who believe that our bodies are nothing more than the result of evolutionary chance will feel no accountability to God or anyone else for what they do with or to their body. We who have a witness of the broader reality of premortal, mortal, and postmortal eternity, however, must acknowledge that we have a duty to God with respect to this crowning achievement of His physical creation.

I think the rest of this section of the lesson is very good, though largely self-explanatory. The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, as cited in the lesson, is a particularly apt example of how sacrifice should be understood, especially for those of us who have been through the temple and have covenanted to consecrate everything to the building of the Kingdom. Abraham exemplified what it means to be willing to put everything on the altar. Too often, sacrifice gets trivialized to this idea that we’ll give part of ourselves or our time to the service of God, rather than thinking how we can turn our entire lives over to God, and to infuse every part of our lives with the spirit of consecration.

5. Sacrifice Helps Us Prepare to Live in the Presence of God

The first scripture mentioned in this section is Matthew 19:29 which promises “an hundredfold” return on sacrificial investment. I think this phrasing goes against the grain of what I discussed in Section 1 of this lesson. So, I’ll probably skip this scripture, since it would be a complicated digression to explain how I think the intent of this verse is mainly to entice those of us with imperfect faith to trust more completely in God. Instead, I will likely try and focus time on D&C 97:8, the other scripture mentioned in this section:

Verily I say unto you, all among them who know their hearts are honest, and are broken, and their spirits contrite, and are willing to observe their covenants by sacrifice—yea, every sacrifice which I, the Lord, shall command—they are accepted of me.

I think the language used here is particularly appropriate for this lesson: the idea of broken hearts and contrite spirits recalls 3 Ne 9 from Section 2; “accepted” is a common term used with respect to sacrifices (see Moses 6:3; D&c 84:31; Rom 12:1, again; 1 Pet 2:5; etc.).

6. Additional Scriptures

I’d like to say a word regarding Luke 9:57—62, esp. as it pertains to Genesis 22 (from Section 4). In Luke 9, two of the followers of Christ ask to first attend to family obligations or niceties, and the Lord responds by saying, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62).

Christ’s response seems harsh. This passage should be understood in light of Elisha’s request to kiss his father and mother goodbye (1 Kings 19:19–21). It seems that Luke is contrasting the greater nature of Christ’s mantle relative to Elijah’s.

I think this harsh passage should also be understood in light of Section 4 of this lesson. What is important is that we are willing to offer our “whole souls as an offering” (Omni 1:26). Sometimes, seemingly-good desires, like family ties or Church obligations, may actually conflict with what God requires of us.

Oftentimes, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22 is discussed in terms of a moral dilemma that Abraham faced (Kierkegaard, for example, explores this in detail, as does Derrida). I think these kind of discussions risk missing what is perhaps the main point: Abraham’s willingness to give up what is most dear to him. How Abraham comes to know what is actually God’s will is not really a central part of the story. Nor is the ethical dilemma of taking his son’s life central (I think focusing on the ethical dilemma that Abraham faced is a bit anachronistic—as we read in the Book of Abraham, human sacrifice was a part of the culture back then, without the same kind of ethical meaning such an act would have today). Rather, what is central is Abraham’s willingness to give up what is most dear to him.

For Joseph Smith (and Emma), plural marriage might be understood as a similar to Abraham’s sacrifice (cf. D&C 132:51ff). This idea makes me fear and tremble. What is most dear to me, and how willing would I be to give it up, if I knew that is what God required of me? This, it seems to me, is the hardest question implicit in this lesson.

20 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 26: “Sacrifice” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. Kim B. said

    Thanks for this post, Robert. In thinking about this lesson, my biggest question has been “What is the difference between sacrifice and consecration?” In talking it over with my husband, here are some of our ideas:

    – Sacrifice is a covenant that accompanies the terrestrial world (being kicked out of the Garden); consecration is a covenant that’s preparatory to entering God’s presence
    – Sacrifice = redemption, consecration = exaltation (Here I’m thinking particularly of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. He sacrificed himself for us, but it still took place on a terrestrial level. It redeems us, to be sure, but only from sin. Consecration, then, is what we’re saved TO–saved to good works. Perhaps?)

    I think some of my confusion might arise from the way sacrifice and consecration are discussed in the church. Consecration is (mis-)understood as a physical law to be practiced at some point in the distant future (the “United Order”). The spirit of that law is then transferred to our discussions of sacrifice, where we talk about giving everything we have and are to the Lord. Nearly every discussion of sacrifice we have in the church is dealt with in the language of consecration, because the saints don’t yet understand what consecration really amounts to. Maybe?

    But then my dilemma becomes this: Doesn’t that understanding rob sacrifice of its depth?

    And the question ultimately remains: How am I to distinguish between sacrifice and consecration?

  2. BrianJ said

    I would also like to hear what is the difference between “sacrifice” and “investment.”

  3. Robert C. said

    I’m going to use the language of Brian’s question to try and respond to Kim’s question.

    Sacrifice was first given to Adam and Abraham, before the Law of Moses was ever given. The Law of Moses was generally understood as a lesser law (if you’ve read Joe’s manuscript, he argues that Nephi had a different, “more correct” understanding of the Law of Moses). This changed the way that sacrifice was understood in such a way that, rather than sacrifice amounting to a kind of consecrated gift to God, it became more of an investment.

    So, when we think about sacrifice from the perspective of the lesser law (as I think is the case in the temple), it’s hard to reconcile with consecration. However, from a higher law kind of perspective, we can reinterpret sacrifice so that it is not caught up in the logic of economics and investment; rather, we come to understand what a truly consecrated offering is—and after Christ’s atonement, we offer our whole soul as such, an offering to God motivated by purified love rather than merely an investment in hopes of some mortal or post-mortal reward.

    So, if we are waiting for some new or restored commandment to live a consecrated life, then I think we have an investment-/economic-based (mis)understanding of consecration. If, instead, we choose to recognize and abide by a more voluntary form of consecration, we will eagerly give everything we can and it will not feel like an economic investment where we “give up something good now (only) for something better down the road” (as we commonly explained it on my mission), but it will feel like a gift that we gladly give.

    Or something like that, is my understanding….

  4. BrianJ said

    “give up something good now (only) for something better down the road”

    Bingo! That’s the exact oft-repeated phrase I had in mind. Under that definition, sacrifice is no more (or less) than a really solid stock tip—“buy Microsoft ca. 1987.” And so I wonder when we can simply talk of sacrifice in terms of doing what is right because it is right.

    (That’s my simple-minded version of Robert’s #3.)

  5. Carol B. said

    Any comment on how sanctification should fit in with all this?

    I like the idea of doing what’s right simply because it’s right, as opposed to expecting a reward. But I figured sacrifice/consecration were also things that were preparing me physically as well as spiritually to live in God’s presence.

    Is that so bad? :S

  6. Mike B. said

    I asked the question today in elder’s quorum about whether sacrifice really just amounts to investment. Several comments were made about sacrificing for our families. (In fact, the teacher told a story about a 13 year old who sacrificed his life for his 10 year old brother in the Queensland floods.) We don’t sacrifice for those we love with thought of a reward, and yet, you could still say that we’re invested in their happiness. The various responses left me with this idea. Jesus performed the most real of all sacrifices in performing the atonement. What was his motivation?

    1. If he gets through this he gets eternal glory as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. (Motivation for eternal reward)

    2. He wanted to save the human race from sin. (Altruistic investment)

    3. Or do his words “remove this cup from me” suggest that, even if he had intended to save the human race, in the crucial moment he lost his resolve? Perhaps what truly motivated him in that moment of sacrifice was only his relationship with his Father. (Submission)

    I don’t know whether to believe 2 or 3.

    • Deno P said

      In response to Mike’s motives for Christ’s sacrifice, I’d say that motive #1 doesn’t apply because Christ had already gained Godhood and was King of Kings before came to earth and was born of a mortal mother. Why did he do it? I believe the only motivating factor for him was love of his father and love of his spiritual siblings. Is there any of us who would sacrifice that which is most precious to us for anything less than love?

  7. Robert C. said

    Brian #4, I like your clearer and simpler expression of what I was trying to get at—thanks!

    Carol #5 and Mike #6, I like Mike’s way of distinguishing between different possible motivations of the Savior. I think the danger of thinking in terms of sanctification is that it can be taken merely as Mike’s #1.

    The difference between Mike’s #2 and #3 is, I think, very interesting. In fact, I think it’s a difference that often captures the imagination of fiction writers: what to choose, saving the world or saving one’s own spouse or family member (I saw the first episode 24, the TV show, and this was a central thematic, if I remember correctly; in some ways, I think it’s also central to Shakespeare’s King Lear). As I understand it, existential philosophy is basically an argument that #3 (or some variant of it under the aegis “particularity”) is actually better than #2 (“universality”). Kierkegaard’s analysis, for example, of Abraham’s struggle with the command to slay Isaac, is basically an argument for #3 over #2. I also take the Church’s emphasis on the family as a duty above and beyond the importance of being a good, altruistic/philanthropic citizen of society as a kind of privileging of #3 over #2. At least that’s my own inclination….

  8. BrianJ said

    I like Mike B’s analysis. Just to add a few thoughts:

    I reject option 1 because Christ was already God. He didn’t need the atonement to earn exaltation.

    I’m reluctant to take “remove this cup from me” at face value. It just doesn’t make sense that Jesus, with all his understanding, would truly hesitate. I think, rather, this is an indication of his mortal side—a “nod” to that weakness, in a way—as well as a way to highlight the magnitude of his suffering. (Anyway, my thoughts are probably a topic for another thread!)

    • CameronP said

      I agree with your last point BrianJ. I think his mortal side was to always play a part in the Atonement as stated in Alma 7:11-12:

      “…that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”

      In regards to the comment on “remove this cup from me”, my thoughts are that it was the Saviour asking His father “is there no other way to accomplish this? ….. If not, then I will still do thy will”.

  9. joespencer said

    I’ve had Kim’s question in my mind for the last week or so, but without having anything to say. But in teaching the lesson on fasting yesterday in our high priests group, I think I struck on my response:

    Isn’t the problem that we take sacrifice to be a question of giving up something we own, something of our possession? Because we begin from possession we understand to be undeniably ours, we inevitably arrive (through the investment) at something else we take to be undeniably ours.

    But perhaps sacrifice works rather differently. As a gesture, it is less a giving up of what is ours, but a confession that nothing is ours. We are not giving up what is ours and so hoping to secure more for us, but marking the fact that nothing of what we “have” is ours. The reason we “get more” or “get blessings” for sacrificing is precisely because God, seeing our clear recognition that what we “have” is actually His and not ours, then trusts us with more.


  10. Robert C. said

    Joe, I like this approach but it makes me wonder about the nature of the gift of agency.

    It seems to me that agency is a kind of “possession” that God has given us: Adam and Eve could choose to partake of the tree of knowledge, and they did.

    However, the implication of making such a choice—choosing to violate God’s commandment—is that we are (they were) cut off from God’s presence, and thus we become agents of the devil, which ultimately leads to a loss of agency….

    So, if we want to be in a relationship with God, we must, in some strong sense, refuse the gift of agency-as-possession.

    Or something…?

  11. BrianJ said

    Joe: I’m with Robert. I’m reluctant to accept the idea that “nothing is really ours” because I feel that it defeats the purpose or concept of sacrifice, agency, etc. I know that in one sense nothing is truly mine—because eventually I will die and/or the objects will disintegrate. But for the time being, those things are “mine” at least in the sense that they are “in my power”; i.e., they fall under the control of my agency (to borrow Robert’s terms).

  12. joespencer said

    I think we can sort out agency in exactly the same way I’ve parsed sacrifice. Though we tend to talk about agency as something that is “ours,” perhaps particularly because we associate (or equate) it with (post-Kantian) autonomy, the word itself—particularly as it is employed in less theological contexts in the Doctrine and Covenants, for example—suggests actually a relationship in which we are the subordinate (to be the agent of such-and-such), not some kind of “thing” that we autonomously “possess.”

    So I think I’d put it differently. We begin with agency in the richer, relational sense. But we employ that agency in order, precisely, to pervert it (this is what we call sin). Obedience is then not a generous, magnanimous gesture on my part, marking my willingness to break with what is indelibly mine, but a recognition that even agency is in no strong sense mine.

    In a word, the ontological independence of man from God that so deeply marks Mormonism—and I won’t give up that theological cash crop for anything!—is probably irreducible to agency, as our own scriptures suggest by speaking of God giving us our agency.

    Or something….

  13. Mike B. said

    Wait, so Joe, you’re saying that although man is autonomous (ontologically independent from God), you think agency is the wrong word to refer to that autonomy? Did I understand that right?

  14. Robert C. said

    Joe #12, I could go for something like that.

    Mike, I think Joe’s saying human independence from God is more than just agency, but includes agency (“irreducible to agency”). Our identity as selves separate from God is more than just agency: we were somebodies before we were given agency. At least that’s my thinking….

  15. BrianJ said

    “… before we were given agency.”

    Is there such a time? If we always existed (in some state), did we not also have agency? True, one can only express agency when faced with some kind of choice, but is it true that God not only presented us with a choice, but also extended for the first time a new power called “agency”? Or, another way to ask this: is it true that prior to God’s intervention, did we already experience choices?

    Joe: I see where you’re going in #12, but I still resist. Perhaps I am resisting something larger than your argument here—resisting what sounds to me like something ultimately leading to a sort of annihilation (as taught by some eastern religions). There are also, I fear, echoes of Calvinist total depravity. Which is not to say that I think you are preaching those things, only my interpretation of what you’ve written here causes me to pause for these reasons.

  16. joespencer said

    Mike (and, so, Robert as well), I think I’d prefer to nix the language of autonomy altogether for the moment, insisting instead only on ontological independence. When I say that that independence is irreducible to agency, though, I don’t mean that it is categorially larger than agency, but that there is a more complex and as yet to me completely murky relationship between agency and ontological independence.

    Brian, I don’t think there’s any overlap between what I’m trying to spell out and eastern notions of annihilation. I’m fine with echoes—so long as they are recognized as thoroughly Nephite echoes—of Calvinist depravity, though I’m concerned to be very careful there. Perhaps what I’m saying could be put in the form of a question: Why should our ontological independence be reduced to one avatar or another of (a thoroughly philosophical definition of) will?

    At any rate, I think I am pointing to the possibility, drawn from hints in scripture, that choice was born for us ontological independents only with God’s intervention—or at least with someone’s intervention: what can choice mean outside of language, and what can language mean outside of interlocution?

  17. BrianJ said

    Joe: I got up at 5AM today and worked for 13 hours straight on a grant proposal. So my brain just can’t follow “Why should our ontological independence be reduced to one avatar or another of (a thoroughly philosophical definition of) will?” I think “avatar” is where you lost me :)

    Perhaps I could better explain why I’m sensing hints and echoes. First, the annihilation. It’s this idea that we must give over completely to God’s will because nothing is actually ours—and I mean nothing. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the idea of total devotion; sacrificing all that I have for the sake of others. What I do have a problem with is if that sacrifice in the end amounts to exactly nothing. (“A drop of water in the ocean,” as the Hindus might call it.)

    Now, the total depravity. I think what sparked this was your comments on agency and sin. Almost, I could hear the echoes of Calvin telling me that whatever stems from me—as in, my choice or my desires—must be definition be evil. Only God is good and, as we saw above, there is nothing I can contribute to that. Thus, the best I can hope for is to rid myself of myself.

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