One of the least noticed features of Genesis 4 is that, as far as we can tell, Abel and Cain invented the concept of sacrifice as a human mode of worshiping God.
What’s strange about it is that God accepts the sacrifices despite the apparent brutality (Abel kills lambs) and even simple waste (Cain burns up vegetables). The reason it doesn’t seem as strange to us is that sacrifice is so normal for the rest of the Bible. But it ought to strike us as strange because it was an absent concept in the first three pages of Genesis and it is, in the forms we see in Scripture, absent in our lives.
It’s important to pay careful attention to what sacrifice is and does on the most basic level. It basically says that in order for a limited being (human) to manipulate reality/nature in a positive direction, it must give up something beneficial (which was hard to obtain in the first place) to a stronger actor in the scheme of the cosmos. And that in this way, reality itself (God) will be pleased to continue in its beneficence.
In other words, sacrifice is a dramatization of the idea that there is a hierarchy of value and that certain valuables cannot be obtained without the voluntary release of those previously obtained. Indeed, with sacrifice comes the idea that life must carry on “on the steam” of death. Now, sacrifice is an acting out of significantly more than this, but it isn’t less. Sacrifice wasn’t quite the same as magic because magic always exists outside of a coherent worldview. Sacrifice was performed in the context of believing in gods who were place holders for principles of nature. Magic is the attempt to bypass nature altogether (see Rodney Stark’s Acts of Faith, 104-106).
One might say that sacrifice was a way of acting out your view of the ultimate good and the need to do without lesser goods in order to obtain the ultimate bit by bit. For instance, one might sacrifice a child to Moloch so that you can eat in the future. Of course, this would be the grossest idolatry in the Old Testament because children are in God’s image, so one is literally sacrificing the image of the true God to an image of a false god created by man out of material supplied by the true God in order to get something less than God like food.
It’s important to see this by way of example in the modern world:
- The person who sees pleasure as the highest good, might eat junk food every day. They don’t realize it, but they’re sacrificing health and feelings of wholeness in order to seek their vision of the highest possible good.
- To the person who sees virtue as the highest possible good, any number of advantages will be sacrificed in order to escape temptations to live a life of vice.
- The athlete who sees winning as the highest possible good will sacrifice their future mobility to nevertheless lose. But they will trade joint integrity for the shouts in the stands and admiration of the team.
- The parent who wants perfect children will sacrifice their children’s love to pursue the goal of pushing their children into their own narrow vision of perfection. Or, more hopefully, a parent might sacrifice their vision of the ideal child in order to raise their child to be autonomous, virtuous, and happy insofar as it is possible for them to do so.
Sacrifice, then, is baked into the cake of human existence. It’s simply what we do. So when Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” he was relying on one of the simple realities of human existence: you must go without in order to have what is best.
Given what I’ve said about sacrifice, Jesus’ claim raises two important questions:
- What is your vision of “best”?
- What will you do without to have it?
The Christian answer to these two questions is:
- The kind of life Jesus offers.
- Everything about yourself.
Now, Jesus understands that those who follow him “see through a glass darkly.” In fact, one of the things we’ll most have to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus is our own conception of him, for as we approach the ineffable light of God we will realize we were pursuing an illusion that resembled him but was insufficient. We await the day when we’ll see Christ face to face, and in that day we will be like him. But until then, the goal is to daily deny ourselves, even to purify ourselves of what distracts us from the vision of the “best life” that Christ offers. Until now, it’s sufficient to be fully known by him whom we long to know.