Christians often spend much of their time wishing and trying to manipulate God. We do not always do this in the most obvious of ways, but sometimes the less visible is the more insidious. Perhaps we believe that if we could sacrifice something dear to us, God might grant us God’s favor. Instead of treating the blessings that God has given us as blessings, we think that God wishes us to give up something in order to prove just how far we are willing to go in God’s service. By so doing, we commit idolatry by treating God and the things of this world as though they are on an equivalent plane.
But God is not on the same level as things of the world. The creator God is the source, the gift-giver, of all that is good in the world. To treat God as being in competition with the good gifts God has given us is a category mistake. It is confusing one type of thing with another, quite different type of thing. Now, God is not a type of thing. That is precisely the point: God is in a different category–a category that consists only of God.
The God we meet in Jesus is a God who gives gifts. This is a God who wishes all people to partake of abundant life–who wishes ordinary human bodies to become transformed into holy, living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction in terms. What does it mean to be a living sacrifice? One interpretation is that Christians need to become dead to some things, to give some things up, in order to discover God’s will for our lives. That works out to a kind of tit-for-tat. If I give up X, God will grant me Y. It is a kind of masochistic exchange, where I try to gain control over the great Other. I make a sacrifice, then God does such-and-such. But looking more closely at Romans 12 makes it clear what Paul is discussing here. He is concerned with living out the abundant life that God offers us together. Being a living sacrifice means accepting and using the gifts of God, and most especially allowing those gifts to circulate in the community. It is accepting difference without creating division. God is the gift-giver, so honoring God with our bodies as holy, living sacrifices means using the gifts God gives in ways that honor God.
This is a notion of sacrifice that upends any idea of God desiring our suffering. How absurd would that be! The cross represents the end of an economy–an exchange–of sacrifice. Some of the greatest critics of Christianity have charged Christians with imagining that if they sacrifice enough for God in this life, God will reward them in the next–a tit-for-tat that turns God into wish-fulfillment and an upholder of injustice. Marx showed that Christianity often serves to support unjust social conditions because it promises a better life to come, and thus takes away the need to change things for the better in this life.
Nietzsche’s critique of Christians was also quite harsh. He charged that Christians act meek and humble in this life in order to gain power over others in the life to come (in the last judgment). According to Nietzsche, Christian humility is undergirded by revenge fantasies. “Yes, you treat me like dirt now, but I’m going to watch you burn!” Unfortunately, as Christians we sometimes prove this charge of Nietzsche’s true. Or we pretend to ourselves that our judgment of and hostility toward others is motivated by a concern for their welfare, rather than by a desire for power and social recognition.
But the discussion in Romans 12 makes clear just how heretical we are when we act in such ways. Again in Philippians 2–one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament–it is clear that, even as Christians, we are tempted to try to assert power over each other in a multitude of ways. And because we are excellent self-deceivers, we tell ourselves that when we gossip about John’s weight, we are concerned with his health rather than enjoying the smug satisfaction of our own self-control. Indeed, Luther makes it clear that precisely our good deeds–sometimes done for the best of motives–are often our most flawed ways of trying to cut deals with God. But Luther says that even so small a deed as bending down to pick up a piece of straw from the ground can be a good deed when it is done by Christ in the believer. He says that we are not to worry about which good deed to do. There are piles of them lying all around: we are to do whichever lies directly in front of us.
Which brings us back to Romans 12, and the circulation of God’s good gifts in the community. Instead of worrying about our own goodness, or that of others–what needs to be sacrificed in order to gain God’s pleasure now?–we rely on Christ. Jesus tells us that when we have seen him, we have seen the Father, and that means that the Jesus who humbles himself in Philippians 2 is who God is. God is God with us and for us, and we are to honor this God by making use of God’s gifts in service of each other.
Linn Tonstad is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University.