“Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I just sit down until it goes away.”
I found this snarky saying printed on a little plaque, stored in a box of my junk from high school that my mom recently decided she didn’t want me to keep in her storage unit anymore. Apparently, self-care wasn’t super important to me as a teenager.
Almost a decade removed from living in an academy dorm room, I care a lot more about my health and self-development now than I did in high school, as is probably the case with you. And there’s no time of year that we, as a society, think about self-development more than in the months of December and January. We spend December planning out our resolutions, then January trying to keep them.
However, it’s no secret that the statistics for New Year’s resolution follow-through are grim: after a month, less than one quarter of the people who make resolutions will still be committed to them.1 We have good intentions of becoming better people with more wholesome habits, but the results more often look like watching TV all morning in our PJs and then trying to compensate by listening to an audiobook on self-control while we make a mad dash to the grocery store. (That’s definitely not coming from personal experience.)
What’s the difference between seeing the change as a sacrifice or an investment?
If your resolution is to learn Spanish or take underwater basket weaving lessons and you fail, that won’t probably have too much of an impact on who you are as a person. But if you’re trying to leave a particular bad habit or self-destructive trait in 2019, the stats can be more than a little disheartening.
What if God has shown you some particular sin in your life and you’re trying to get victory this year? Are there shifts we can make when it seems like “what I will to do, that I do not practice”? (Romans 7:15)
The other day I was scrolling through Instagram and I came across a post from Christian author Andy Stanley that articulates a paradigm shift that’s been helpful for me when it comes to trying to make changes in my life:
Giving up something now for something better later is not a sacrifice, it’s an investment.
Reading that brings up a lot of questions: What’s the difference between seeing the change as a sacrifice or an investment? How does it affect our ability to experience longterm transformation? Does it ever matter? Doesn’t God ask us to make sacrifices?
Maybe you’ve never thought about the way you see the changes you’re trying to make. You’re just gritting your teeth and trying to make them. But the “why” of your change is probably just as important as the change itself.
Who Can Give up More?
Reading that quotation also takes me back to being a kid in church, listening to pastors and teachers appeal to the congregation to surrender their sins to Jesus. Whether it came from the pastors and teachers or it was something I came up with myself, I feel like the reasoning I had for surrendering my sins to Jesus often went something like this: Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for me, so why can’t I sacrifice this or that thing for Him?
It was quite compelling, at first. After all, we’re talking about the Son of God, for Pete’s sake. If it’s a contest to see who can give up more, well, Jesus wins every time. I wanted to have a relationship with God, to love Him, and this was an argument my anxious, Enneagram 6 personality had a hard time resisting (especially when someone was playing soft piano chords in the background).
Even some of the hymns we sang carried the idea that Jesus was wanting to know what I was going to lay on the table for Him:
I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed,
That thou might’st ransomed be,
And quickened from the dead;
I gave, I gave My life for thee,
What hast thou given for Me?
Again, there’s no arguing over what Jesus has sacrificed for humanity. Over time, though, I have discovered a problem with framing our surrender as a “sacrifice.”
Childbirth Does Not Feel Like a Massage
Part of the definition of sacrifice, according to Merriam-Webster, is that you are giving up something “precious,” something of value for someone else’s sake. We say moms are “sacrificial” because they willingly give up good things for the sake of their children, like their time, privacy, and sleep for the next 10 years. If childbirth just felt like getting a really intense massage while sipping a piña colada or mothers enjoyed never going to the bathroom by themselves, we wouldn’t call it a sacrifice, because there would be no cost.
So, what does this mean when I frame my surrender of sin as a “sacrifice”? Something extremely significant: it implies that I really think there’s something good or valuable in the sin itself. But I’m giving it up merely because I owe it to Jesus.
‘Cause, after all, He, like, died for me and stuff.
But is that biblical? Is that really why Jesus wants me to surrender? He gave up so much for me, so I should be willing to return the favor?
Consider the following Scriptures:
“The way of the unfaithful leads to their destruction” (Proverbs 13:15, NIV).
“You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
Is that really why Jesus wants me to surrender? He gave up so much for me, so I should be willing to return the favor?
“And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts” (Psalm 119:45).
“But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).
“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
“For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
According to these verses, the argument for giving up sin isn’t actually about me owing God anything.
Which is crazy, if you think about it. If anyone ever had leverage in a relationship, it’s Jesus. But when it comes to drawing us to Himself, it’s like He doesn’t care about the leverage at all. In fact, these verses don’t even mention His death on the cross. Rather the argument for surrendering to Jesus is that following Him is for my benefit.
He cares about me.
He wants to give me life, liberty, blessings. And the way of sin, ultimately, ends in death.
That’s a massive difference in motivation. The Bible doesn’t say I should surrender myself to Jesus because He one-upped the human race at Calvary and we’re in His debt forever. It says He wants me to follow Him because His ways give me freedom and happiness.
There’s no manipulation or power-tripping here.
“In the way of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Proverbs 12:28).
If that’s true, if I truly believe that God wants to give me pleasures forevermore and that He withholds no good thing from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11), then when God asks me to give something up, I’m sacrificing something that I need to get rid of anyway in order to become my best, happiest self.
If anyone ever had leverage in a relationship, it’s Jesus. But when it comes to drawing us to Himself, it’s like He doesn’t care about the leverage at all.
Which means, according to Merriam-Webster, it isn’t a sacrifice at all.
So, the big problem with framing our surrender to Jesus as a sacrifice is that, well… it’s not.
In her brilliant book Steps to Christ, Ellen White writes,
“God does not require us to give up anything that it is for our best interest to retain. In all that He does, He has the well-being of His children in view. Would that all who have not chosen Christ might realize that He has something vastly better to offer them than they are seeking for themselves. Man is doing the greatest injury and injustice to his own soul when he thinks and acts contrary to the will of God. No real joy can be found in the path forbidden by Him who knows what is best and who plans for the good of His creatures. The path of transgression is the path of misery and destruction” (Steps to Christ, pg. 46, emphasis added).
In other words, God needs our “sacrifices” like a surgeon needs a diabetic’s infected foot: not for His sake, but for ours. God’s ways are about giving you more pleasure, not less.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely didn’t grow up truly believing God’s ways were “vastly better.” But the older I get, the more I find what my friend David says to be true: “Obedience is its own reward.”
Consider this raw example from GQ magazine
“God Is a Pleasure Junkie.”
In 2013, GQ published an article titled, “10 Reasons Why You Should Quit Watching Porn.”2 The article discusses the findings of a survey of a Reddit community called, “NoFap,” a group committed to abstaining from porn and masturbation. The survey found that of those “among 27- to 31-year-olds on NoFap: 19 percent suffer from premature ejaculation, 25 percent are disinterested in sex with their partner, 31 percent have difficulty reaching orgasm, and 34 percent experience erectile dysfunction.” It was also reported that “one in five people who regularly watch porn admitted to feeling controlled by their own sexual desires.”
Whether we admit it or not, there’s a lie that says obedience means getting the short end of the stick.
But “after committing to no masturbation/porn, 60 percent of those on NoFap felt that their sexual functions had improved” and “67 percent had an increase in energy levels as well as productivity.”
Whether we admit it or not, there’s a lie that says obedience means getting the short end of the stick. But in this study—from GQ magazine of all places—by saying no and keeping a boundary, the subjects of the survey experienced more pleasure, not less.
Whether you’re trying to give up porn, people pleasing, drugs, gossip, laziness, God’s ways are about finding more freedom, not less. Sin diminishes our ability to experience pleasure. God’s boundaries are about enlarging it.
I like the way my friend Elise puts it: God is a pleasure junkie. His No’s are generous No’s.
The More Important Question
So, how does all this impact our ability to make lasting changes in our lives?
Well, if you’re giving something up because you feel you owe it to God and He has arbitrarily asked for it as a sacrifice, that well of motivation will eventually run dry. No one can run on the fuel of pure obligation forever. When trying to make a change, I find it a more compelling motivator that, in the end, when Jesus returns, we’ll see that God is actually the one who has taken the hit over and over and over again for people. And yet, in everything He asked us to do, He had our wellbeing in mind. They weren’t arbitrary commands because He was on a power trip.
Once we understand this, it doesn’t mean we’ll never fail in our resolve to do right. But we can’t make lasting change without it as a foundation.
I tear up thinking about how I’ve violated others in relationships because I thought there was an allure to crossing boundaries and I didn’t really believe God’s ways were truly good.
in the end, when Jesus returns, we’ll see that God is actually the one who has taken the hit over and over and over again for people.
Maybe you’re tempted to break your resolution to stop doing that thing, whatever it is you struggle with. Or maybe you’ve already given up. Is it because, deep down, you feel you owe God certain changes? Was the change a sacrifice to a God who needs your surrender to support His ego or was it an investment made under the guidance of a Father who longs to give you pleasures forevermore?
Before you give up on your resolution,
Before you resent God for being a kill-joy,
Before you beat yourself up for failing,
Why not take some extra time to answer that question.
It could make all the difference in the person you become.
- Ashira Prossack, “This Year, Don’t Set New Year’s Resolutions,” Forbes, December 31, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashiraprossack1/2018/12/31/goals-not-resolutions/#55293f303879.
- Scott Christian, “10 Reasons Why You Should Quit Watching Porn,” GQ magazine, November 20, 2013, https://www.gq.com/story/10-reasons-why-you-should-quit-watching-porn.