[April 16, 2022] I grew up in the Deep South and attended church services every Sunday with my family and neighbors. Like so many boys of that young age, I was fidgety in my seat, squirming because I was bored and impatient. Looking back upon those times sitting in the pews next to my brother and sister, I remember the Pastor re-telling Biblical stories that included the ancients making ritual sacrifices to God. I could not get through my head why anyone would give up something of value. I wasn’t connecting the dots.
A sacrifice means you give up something in the present to improve the future.
It took me a long time to truly understand what sacrifice meant. On the surface, the idea of sacrifice was represented in ancient rituals of burnt offerings and animal sacrifice. It seemed so archaic and so outdated, so unnecessary. In Biblical stories, the sacrificial purpose was to stay on God’s good side, much like the original sacrifice in the story Cain and Able. In that story, Cain (the older son of Adam and Eve) makes sacrifices to God, but his gifts are less than adequate. This “unfairness” (in the thinking of Cain) frustrates Cain, and his bitterness and resentfulness reveal themselves when he ultimately kills his brother Able.
If we look at these writings, the ancients were trying to tell us something. They said that to be a better person, you must sacrifice, and we must properly sacrifice. You get to choose the sacrifice, but you do not get an option not to sacrifice. And, a sacrifice must be of something genuinely valuable; else, it will be unworthy, and we will be bitter and resentful when it fails to gain us what we desire.
One of the more interesting things about the Bible’s Old Testament and the story of Moses and his peoples’ slavery in Egypt is that they rejected the path of Cain. Every time God strikes at the Egyptian Pharaoh and, at the same time, his Jewish slaves, which is often, Moses says that it is the Jews themselves who must have done something wrong, and they have to set themselves straight. That is an unbelievably courageous outlook because this way of thinking is the alternative to blaming others for your wrongs and failures. You take that responsibility upon yourself.
This idea is no trivial matter.
We, as humans, can imagine a future, and that is how we differ fundamentally from all others in the animal kingdom. We can see ourselves in the future and look at how we can fail (and be miserable) and how we can be successful (with a life of satisfaction). If you can reject the misery and look at yourself to sacrifice properly, you can move forward into that future.
The most challenging question is, what are you aiming at? You are trying to improve the future as a consequence of your efforts today. That is what those Biblical and ancient stories tell us, which is why the stories are of such great importance. Ultimately, this is about knowing how to represent yourself – the good you – in the world and how to be who you might be. Don’t be Cain.
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