Because repeatedly sacrificing for others can take a toll when they are ungrateful, it is important to consider how we can be faithful to the Lord when others are unappreciative of our sacrifices. Consider the following verse from Romans 12:1 “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
First of all, this would have been startling to the readers of that day who were used to an animal sacrifice made to God through a priest. You can almost hear them saying, “How could it be a sacrifice and still be living?” But God is saying our sacrifice is no longer a ceremonial ritual made by someone else, but a personal, regular offering of ourselves throughout the day, in all our circumstances, and in all our relationships.
Secondly, these sacrifices that we make are unto the Lord, even though they are often done for other people in the context of a relationship. That means that the Lord is the primary recipient of the sacrifice I make when I’m serving others, and not the actual person I’m serving. The Lord mercifully and graciously pursued us while we were his enemies. He has initiated a relationship with us out of his kindness. It is because of His mercy that Paul is urging us to offer ourselves to Him. So it is the Lord’s acceptance of my sacrifice that becomes central to why I serve others. This opens the door to a new motivation for me. I shift my focus away from the response of people (whether grateful or ungrateful for my service), and I primarily look to the Lord for affirmation.
Thirdly, God tells us in this verse that a sacrifice made unto Him, holy and acceptable, is something He receives from us as worship. Try to let that sink in: we can offer worship to God every day through sacrifices we make in our relationships. We’re not really used to considering that we are worshipping God when we’re caring for small children who never stop needing from us, working on a project with a difficult and uncooperative co-worker, repeatedly driving a teenager to practice or listening to your spouse talk about his/her difficult day while they fail to acknowledge the rigors you’ve been through. But think of the implications for a moment – God is saying to us that He takes note of our daily sacrifices and these mundane, unrecognized offerings are prized by the Father, and viewed by him as worship, a worship that can have a sweeter aroma to Him than the praise songs we offer at a Sunday church service.
Consider the husband who cares for his family while his wife is recovering from a long-term illness. Because he has flexibility with his job, he works from home so he can tend to his wife throughout the day and help her with her recovery. He takes the kids to school, packs their lunches, leaves work to pick them up from school, takes them to their practices, makes sure they have dinner, helps them with their homework, and assists them with their bedtime routine. When all this is done, each night he spends a couple of hours trying to catch up with his work. The next day he starts this routine all over again. Is he a living sacrifice unto the Lord? That is for the Lord to decide, but it’s not a complete mystery. There are indications whether we’re offering ourselves to Him, or to something or someone else. Perhaps the man is serving his family dutifully, but his sacrifices are laced with self-reliance and pride. The Lord glories in our humility, and that is often shown when we ask and receive help from a loving Father who is eager to give Himself to us. Serving others can be difficult, but the life of Christ is manifested in us as we share in his sufferings by sacrificing well. The Lord wants us to know this brings Him pleasure.
The Lord glories in our humility, and that is often shown when we ask and receive help from a loving Father who is eager to give Himself to us.
Suppose on one particular day while getting the kids off to school they complain about the breakfasts he makes, and that their mom packs way better lunches. The first call of the day is his boss. Even though she has seemed to show understanding that his wife is sick, she still expects him to perform at a higher level than he has in recent days and is now communicating he’s going to have to make other arrangements for her care if he can’t get back up to speed. Later that night his wife is upset with him because he forgot to register their daughter for ballet and today was the deadline. Before going to bed he notices an overdraft fee on his online banking statement because in the flurry of life he forgot to make sure he transferred money into the bill-paying account in time for the monthly drafts.
How he responds gives clues to the depth of his connection to the Lord and how able he is to offer his life to God as a living sacrifice. If he continues his duties on the outside, but inwardly gets undone with bitterness and frustration he’s likely not looking to the Lord or hearing Him say, “Well done,” and is probably too focused on making his offering to his wife and kids. They are not affirming him for his sacrifices, and his resentfulness reveals he’s looking too much toward them to validate that his sacrifices are meaningful. He is too pulled toward finding appreciation from his wife, kids, and boss and he feels quite satisfied when they give it. But when they don’t, he becomes inwardly upset, and goes through his routine begrudgingly. Either way, his response ironically reveals he is at the center of his “worship” (what he values above all else – the praise and affirmation of others).
Every one of us is subject to this. We all get stung by criticism and ingratitude. And yet there is still opportunity to bring worship to the Lord and experience His pleasure, even while we incur the disregard and disapproval from others. The gospel is our pathway forward. For example, because he’s human the husband may feel hurt by his wife and kids’ lack of affirmation, and disappointed his boss is not more sympathetic to him in light of his circumstances. However, if he remembers that the Lord is still pursuing him and encouraging him in the midst of this ongoing struggle, he is more likely to look to the Lord and find encouragement from him. This God consciousness helps him move in the direction of more fully worshipping God. Even if his family’s ingratitude upsets him, he can increasingly find more of the Lord in the situation and experience his acceptance (Rom 8:1 “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”). While he’s tempted to respond to his family by angrily pointing out their selfishness, or withdrawing in a condemning and isolating silence, his growing connection with the Lord helps him to be regularly talking with Him about this, confessing his inner struggle and calling on the Lord to change his heart. In response, the Lord meets him by His grace and receives the man’s repentance as worship.
We must leave it in the hands of God to determine what He receives as a holy and acceptable living sacrifice. However, we can progressively move in this direction as we more and more make the Lord the primary recipient of our relational sacrifices - “to the Lord, while toward others.” As we do this we can learn to hear and rest in the Lord’s delight in our daily offerings to Him through serving others.Sometimes we’ll sacrifice for others more effortlessly and sometimes we’ll have to fight through, giving in to disappointment and resentment over the ingratitude of those we serve (“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” Ps 51:17). But because of the Gospel of Christ, each situation gives us the opportunity to grow in worship of the Lord continuously through our daily interaction with others.