It goes without saying that self-sacrifice is inherent in being a Christian in this life. Jesus Christ, of course, was the ultimate sacrifice–becoming obedient to the point of death and giving his own life as a ransom for the entire world. And Christians are repeatedly instructed to follow his example. Jesus taught us, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” His apostles were no different. In his first epistle, John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Likewise, Paul instructed husbands, “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Sacrificial love always accompanies Christian faith.
Nevertheless, there is such a thing as pathological self-sacrifice, and it is by no means Christian.
I was reminded of this fact by an objection to my recent case for a religious exemption to the vaccine mandates. In short, I argued that any head of household would be violating both the 4th and 5th Commandments if he were to administer a vaccine which he believed to be harmful to anyone in his family–including himself. It was those last two words, “including himself,” which triggered the objection:
This could certainly be valid if a mandate requires one’s spouse, children or parents to be vaccinated. Under the current situation in the USA, however, it does not apply as the mandate only applies to the worker himself. The 4th and 5th commandments are not commandments to self-preservation. For example the command to “provide for anyone in his household” does not include himself.
It’s a misunderstanding of vocation, of course. It would be like contending that when a king rides into battle, he must bear neither shield nor sword because his arms are given to him only for the sake of protecting his people, not himself. No, the king is part of his own people whom he must protect. Likewise, the head of a household is a part of that very household–an invaluable part at that. And if he were not responsible for himself as well as his family, Paul could never have written that if a man does not work, neither should he eat.
The 5th Commandment likewise forbids self-harm just as much as it forbids harming others. This is why suicide has always been considered a sin. If the Law does not protect ourselves as much as it protects others, then Jesus could never have summarized that Law as “love our neighbor as yourself.”
Scripture dwells more on self-sacrifice than it does on self-preservation because the latter is what humans generally need to be reminded of the least. Not only does fallen nature make a habit of looking out of number one above all else, in most times and places throughout history, survival was by no means a foregone conclusion, and so failing to take care of oneself would have become very problematic very quickly.
That’s not the case in America. We don’t do much subsistence living here, and so survival is pretty much taken for granted. Our culture is affluent enough that many people can live without taking responsibility for themselves. In such an environment, it’s easy to overlook what the Bible takes for granted and abandon self-respect in our pursuit of self-denial. Accordingly, we often try to seize martyrdom for ourselves rather than submitting to the work which God has given us to do.
This same dynamic was present in some monasteries–another peculiar kind of environment. Mortification of the flesh is supposed to be a deliberate denial of our sinful nature (for example, by fasting to remind ourselves that man does not live by bread alone). In some places, that transformed into a deliberate denial of our human nature (for example, by self-flagellation to “prove” to themselves that their God-given bodies didn’t matter).
Many American Christians can be found self-flagellating as well. We teach men to despise their own masculinity. We teach husbands to despise their own authority. We teach everyone to despise their own nation. We do this despite all these things being gifts from God. So when the Spirit of the Age comes along to strongarm us into putting on a mask or taking the jab despite our own good judgment, we think we must despise ourselves and be subject to the abuse for Christ’s sake.
But in submitting so such things, we are not mortifying our flesh or denying ourselves, but rather denying our God-given vocations.
Respect means to treat something as though it is what it is. You respect an authority by obeying it. You respect a boundary by not crossing it. Self-respect therefore means treating ourselves as though we are what we are. So what are we?
We are sinners, certainly. That’s why we respect ourselves by seeking forgiveness in Word and Sacrament and by disciplining our appetites. But that’s only what we have made ourselves. There’s also the matter of what God has made us.
God has made us saints, citizens of His Kingdom, and His beloved children. Accordingly, we treat ourselves as His people rather than the devil’s. That means we pursue the Kingdom of God and His righteousness above all else.
God has also called us to certain offices in this life. Self-respect means we uphold those offices. A father, for example, must treat himself as though he were actually a father. Among other things, that means he knows he is entitled to honor and obedience from his wife and children, and so he teaches said wife and children to offer it. There are, of course, good ways and bad ways of teaching this, but altogether refusing to do so because he feels he is not worthy of such obedience is not a mark of humility–it’s a denial of what God has made him.
Likewise, when someone in authority knocks on his door to demand that he submit or else they’ll try to destroy his livelihood and subject his children to poverty, it’s not a foregone conclusion that he must submit. He is responsible for caring for them, yes–even to the point of sacrificing himself. Even so, he is their invaluable head; he must never allow his family’s head to be cut off as though it were of no consequence. He is more than a consumable resource for his family, and so he must treat himself as such for that sake of his God-given responsibilities.
In the same way, when his neighbors–even his brothers and sisters in Christ–demand that he sacrifice himself for them or else be branded “selfish” or “unloving”, he need not necessarily submit. He is called to live sacrificially, but a sacrifice is meaningful only when something of value is both given up and received. If his neighbors are not treating him as something of value–if they treat his sacrifice as a matter of entitlement or as a thing taken for granted–then he may be under no such obligation unless it is God Himself who has given it to him.
We must bear our crosses in this life. That means that we must often give up things we would rather hold onto; this much is certain. But crosses are what God imposes on us; not what others impose on us or what we impose on ourselves. So when we are being coerced into harming themselves, the cross may not be in submitting to that harm. The cross may be the far more difficult task of resisting such people and suffering the consequences. And even if it is your family that they are holding hostage, sometimes if is precisely for your family’s sake that you must refuse and trust in God.