Sacrifice. It sounds like such a harsh word. But that might just be a sign of the times. These days, sacrifice can be seen as unnecessary self-denial. I’ve been thinking about it lately, and it actually seems to me that anyone who wants to accomplish anything difficult cannot do so without sacrifice, especially when it comes to spirituality.
When we think about sacrifice, the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac to God often comes to mind. Now, there are a multitude of meanings and interpretations to this story which I won’t go into here. But what seems most basic is that Abraham was called to sacrifice his son out of his devotion to God. And to me, that’s what stands at the heart of true sacrifice. We don’t sacrifice things haphazardly or without a purpose: we renounce things as an act of devotion to something higher. But why do we do this? Because those things stand in our way; they are preventing us from attaining the object of our devotion.
Let’s look at a very practical example. If my aim is to become healthy, I need to eat healthy food. If I want to eat healthy food, I naturally also have stop or at least minimize eating unhealthy food. And this is where the sacrifice comes in. Even if I crave junk food, if I want to attain my goal of good health, I have to refrain from indulging in it. It’s very basic: health is my aim, and junk food stands in the way, so I need to stop eating it. That, to me, is sacrifice in a nutshell.
The same is true of spiritual health. Abdul-Baha says,
Every man trained through the teachings of God and illumined by the light of His guidance, who becomes a believer in God and His signs and is enkindled with the fire of the love of God, sacrifices the imperfections of nature for the sake of divine perfections. Consequently, every perfect person, every illumined, heavenly individual stands in the station of sacrifice.1
… he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit, and follow the yearnings of his higher self, and immerse himself in the sea of sacrifice, with his heart fixed upon the beauty of the All-Glorious.2
Here the goal is God and to draw closer to our Maker. To do so, I believe we have to become more god-like; we have to reflect the divine qualities of God, such as love and kindness. To reflect these qualities, we have to conquer our lower self and its negative attributes, like greed and hatred. Part of the human condition is that we are used to inhabiting our lower selves, which means that rising above them is challenging. It requires sacrifice.
So, that’s what I believe sacrifice is: to relinquish the lower for the higher. To state it in an analogy, it is like a person who is carrying around two handfuls of pebbles. Then someone comes along and offers them two handfuls of diamonds. How can they carry the diamonds, assuming they don’t have a bag or pockets? They have to let go of the pebbles.
This reality underlies so much of our lives. To succeed at accomplishing any goal, there is usually a degree of sacrifice involved. If there wasn’t, the goal would already be attained, which would mean that there wasn’t a goal to begin with. Students have to sacrifice time playing computer games to have the time to study for exams. Parents have to sacrifice time and money doing overtime to spend quality time with their children. Sacrifice teaches us that we can’t always have our cake and eat it too. We have to make decisions about what’s most important. We have to prioritize and discover our highest aim.
But sacrifice is not easy, and that might be another reason why many people dislike the word so much. Sacrifice is difficult because it involves giving up things that we are used to, desire or even crave. Sometimes it is the very beliefs and way of life that we have grown up with that must be let go of, if they are based on blind belief. This is not easy, but Abdu’l-Baha explains it is essential to advancement:
This is the day when dogmas must be sacrificed in our search for truth. We must leave behind all save what is necessary for the needs of today, nor attach ourselves to any form or ritual which is in opposition to moral evolution.3
Sacrifice might also involve withstanding one’s desire or craving for something: food, drugs, sex, anything. This is especially challenging because our animal nature is programmed to pursue pleasure. To negate this drive can feel like we are denying ourselves what we most need. But I don’t think we are. The Bahai Writings explain that we have two natures: one lower, one higher. So, by denying ourselves some of the pleasures we crave, we are bringing a higher pleasure to our higher selves. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have any pleasure in life. It is just that we should recognize the desire for things that stand in the way of us attaining our ultimate goals.
Overcoming these things does of course take great effort. It’s not second nature! Because we are so conditioned by the world around us and so acquainted with the lower self, we have to truly strive to overcome its promptings. We have to learn to control ourselves. I think this is one reason why fasting is so useful. Each year, Bahai’s fast for 19 days from sunrise to sunset. This is done out of devotion to God and requires a lot of self-control and perseverance. And it really shows a person that if they can withstand the desire for food, one of a human’s most basic desires, they can withstand almost any other temptation.
Lastly, one other thing that really makes it hard to continue to sacrifice the lower for the higher is that we can so often lose sight of our ultimate goals and values. Today’s world is so busy that we can easily get caught up in our daily affairs and forget what our ultimate purpose is. Then we are deprived of the light that shines from our ultimate aim and left in the darkness to try to ward off the “evil spirits” that surround us. It is especially difficult when we lose sight of the goal but still remember the things we have to let go of. It’s natural that we would remember these things because they are the things we are surrounded by – they are still part of our life i.e. the junk food, the binge watching, the fast fashion…
This means that to succeed at sacrificing, we have to be vigilant both at remembering what our aim in life is and in doing our best to let go of the things that stand in the way of us attaining to that aim. In the short obligatory prayer, Baha’u’llah reminds us of the ultimate aim in life:
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.4
The daily recital of this prayer is a way to keep this goal in mind so that we are more willing to sacrifice the lower for the higher.