The church seems to understand that the message of Jesus was about self sacrifice. However, to hear their description of Christian practice, I get the impression that they think the sacrifice involves what they must do to show God proper respect in church attendance and what earthly pleasures they must give up in order to be appropriately pious. Under this paradigm I often hear a couple of interesting conclusions expressed by Christians, including their ministers. One is the notion that no sane person, absent a belief in God, would ever live a moral life because they would simply do whatever gave them the most pleasure which would involve rampant immorality. The second assertion is that the Christian life is a hard one, often involving persecution, and that if there were no threat of Hell, they wouldn’t put up with the sacrifices.
When people’s doctrine includes a threat, as orthodox Christianity does, the followers are inevitably going to feel coerced to an extent. The greater the punishment, the greater that coercive element becomes. That being said, the two conclusions above make perfect sense. If God needs to resort to threats to induce people to comply with Christian doctrine, then that compliance is not something people would otherwise accept. Thus believers assume that Christianity is a hardship in this life, one which non-believers readily reject and which they barely can embrace. Neither of these conclusions jibes with the idea that Jesus came to establish Christianity based on “Good News”.
I believe the underlying problem here is the misunderstanding of Jesus’ idea of self sacrifice. I don’t believe that what Jesus taught was meant to address how we treat God under the auspices of the church or what we must not do to demonstrate our commitment to Him. Part of the evidence for this conclusion is given in the description of the great judgment in Matt 25. In that passage the standard for judgment is not what men did in their worship of God, their faith in Jesus, or the commission of immoral acts. Instead the entire basis for condemnation is the failure to sacrifice self for the benefit of others. Nothing in this judgment requires adherence to a religious system.
Now self sacrifice is certainly unnatural to the human mind/ego. Nothing seems stranger to us than the idea that we win by losing. That the least is the greatest. That in weakness we are made strong. That it is greater to give than to receive. There is just so much of what Jesus and the New Testament teach that challenge our logical assumptions about what is right, practical, and natural. Yet to ignore these teachings in favor of something more natural, and therefore palatable to the ego, is really a denial of Jesus.
When we redefine the Christian’s sacrificial life as nothing more than demonstrating righteousness through ritualism and personal piety, then all we have is the continuing failure and frustration of the Mosaic system which Jesus came to replace. That system was truly a burden on the people of
What people have always sought, and especially so in our more inquisitive age, is a mode of living that yields joy, peace, and a sense of fulfillment here and now. No religion, which focuses so much on the hereafter and mankind’s endless requirements to achieve fulfillment there, can ever meet that need. Such a religion will divert people from the kind of joyous self sacrifice which Jesus taught and, more importantly, modeled in every facet of His story. Jesus did not model adherence to a religious system. He violated the perceived requirements of Judaism with impunity in the process of serving people. The more steeped a person was in the sacrifices of the Law, the less likely they were to accept Jesus. Jesus and His message were anathema to many Jews in His day for the very same reason His message is so little understood today. It violates our longstanding adherence to a performance based religious system which emphasizes how I help myself by being attentive to God. Any commitment to others, under this view, is reduced to my effort to convince them to conform to me.