A sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless it’s a sacrifice

May 17, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 9:16 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices

My neighbor and friend Bruce is fond of saying “a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice unless it’s a sacrifice”. The point is that unless it hurts it is hard to call something a real sacrifice. I think there is some merit to this idea. This post is about what constitutes sacrifice in our lives today.

When you ask what a sacrifice is in a Mormon Sunday School class you will often get a variation on this answer: Sacrifice is giving up something good to get something better. An example might be that it is a sacrifice to pay tithing but that sacrifice is worth it because there is a spiritual reward that is more desirable than the money given up. Of course the problem with this definition is that it really describes any commerce transaction as well. I mean $5 is a good thing; so when I give it up for something better – like say a fish taco combo meal – have I then sacrificed? Hardly.

We could amend that definition to say we give up something good expecting nothing in return. But then we read King Benjamin’s sermon where he makes it clear that whenever we give something to God he pays in full. Plus the Lord tells us that every law we obey has an inevitable blessing associated with it. So then how is sacrificing to serve God fundamentally different then me buying fish tacos?

One could say that it is a sacrifice if we must delay our reward. When I obey God I must exercise faith that someday it will pay off, even though I don’t know when. Does that delayed reward make it a sacrifice? Well if it does then anyone who invests their money in things like mutual funds is living the law of sacrifice because there are all sorts of delayed reward monetary transactions too.

How then do we sacrifice? What is sacrifice? I’m guessing sacrifice means we do something right even when it hurts. If that is the case then Bruce is right with his saying: A sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless it’s a sacrifice. It also means that sacrifice for us today is really a variation on repentance. We repent enough for it to hurt. We give up our greed and selfishness just quickly enough for it to be somewhat painful. We work at our church calling enough to push ourselves. We give enough to the poor in our fast offerings for it to sting a little. We do right things that we really don’t feel like doing just because they are the right things.

Yes, we will be repaid by God. But since when is that such a bad thing?


  1. Interesting. The scriptures do say we will be blessed, rewarded. But they don’t specify exactly how. Often assume the reward is something that we would consider a reward. But I often wonder if the “reward” for making a sacrifice in doing something right is simply a clear conscience for having done the right thing. In that sense, it truly does become a sacrifice.

    Comment by Eric Russell — May 17, 2005 @ 9:28 pm

  2. I don’t know Eric. It seems that even peace of mind and conscience is a pretty valuable and tangible reward. If that could be bought with money (sans faith) what price tag do you think the world would put on it? And because it is so desirable I think the same transactional issue comes up — since we get paid by God what then is sacrifice?

    Comment by Geoff J — May 17, 2005 @ 9:49 pm

  3. I’ve tried to make this point in comments during tithing lessons before, unsuccessfully. In the standard Mormon formula, tithing is an investment that must be repaid. To suggest it is truly a sacrifice, even a willing one, is seen as denying the power of God. To me, this seems like a triumph of the American religion (“God loves me and wants me to be rich”) over the Bible’s clear statements about the costs of discipleship.

    Comment by Dave — May 17, 2005 @ 10:49 pm

  4. I agree, but disagree. I think a sacrifice is putting something on the alter of God (think Old Testement). You do it be cause it makes you holy. The word comes from the latin sacer or sacred and facere, to make. If you don’t want to do it, I think it is akin to the old Moroni giving gifts despite the desire not to. Does it still “count”?

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 18, 2005 @ 8:46 am

  5. Dave and J.,

    Your points are good ones. Do either of you disagree with the point that sacrifice is inherently transactional though? Dave says we tithe as the cost of discipleship. That is a transaction — we pay an honest tithe and in return we are disciples at least in that thing (and we receive all the benefits associated therein). J. says “You do it be cause it makes you holy”. That is also a transaction. We sacrifice and in return we become holy.

    J’s point about sacrificing grudgingly is an interesting one but I think it is transactional nevertheless. The difference is that those who sacrifice grudgingly really are paying the price for the praise of men. The very fact that it is grudgingly given means that it would not be given if no one else would or could ever know about it right?

    The point I am making is that this common notion that sacrifice is not transactional in nature is simply false.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 18, 2005 @ 11:13 am

  6. In that case, Geoff. Isn’t every singly human act transactional? I tend to agree that this is the case.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 18, 2005 @ 11:33 am

  7. Yep. I think that is accurate.

    I point it out because I think it is helpful in understanding ourselves and even the concept of free agency better.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 18, 2005 @ 11:49 am

  8. I think gratitude has something to do with it as well. I pay tithing and because God doesn’t put that 10% back in my wallet I’m forced to look for the other blessings God says he’ll give. Then we ask ourselves, “was my 10% worth x blessing?” by which we derive the Sunday School answer of Sacrifice is giving up something good to get something better.

    Comment by Rusty — May 18, 2005 @ 2:32 pm

  9. Good point, Geoff. Everything is transactional.

    But does that mean that our motivation must be transactional? The truest form of sacrifice, I think, is where an action is done without any motivation of reciprocation. In other words, there is still a transactional value to the sacrifice, but it is still made even if there weren’t.

    Are you saying there is no such thing as pure altruism?

    Comment by Eric Russell — May 18, 2005 @ 3:50 pm

  10. That is a good point Eric. Motivations are very important. I am convinced that the saying “Charity never faileth” is referring to the concept that charity, or Christ-like love, will never fail us as a motivation. Still, one cannot avoid the reality that there is a personal payoff/reward for even our charitable sacrifices. The reality is though, that charity drives us to sacrifice in far more extreme ways than desire for reward ever could. Charity makes us go to extreme lengths of selfless sacrifices. The Good News is that those great sacrifices that are motivated by that fail-safe motivator called charity also qualify us for extreme blessings that we could not have received otherwise.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 18, 2005 @ 4:36 pm

  11. Three words: “But if not”

    If we can understand what those three young Hebrew men meant, then we can begin to understand sacrifice.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 2, 2005 @ 1:23 pm

  12. I would say sacrifice is giving of yourself with no thought of reward. Actually putting yourself out and not expecting anything. Just doing for others. I’m bothered by the grudging attitude of many young people today, who do not serve others without something in it for them.

    For me, it’s bread upon the waters, it always comes back, but I don’t expect it.

    Comment by annegb — June 3, 2005 @ 7:00 am

  13. When government takes over social functions such as taking care of the elderly (social security, medicare, etc.) then the children no longer see the point of getting involved. Afterall, they agreed to the gov. programs and are paying their taxes. As gov. creeps into our lives, it will replace charity with entitlements.

    I’m too busy working to pay taxes for these entitlements to have the time to give in the traditional sense. I’m giving to the gov. which then gives to the poor, needy, widow, elderly, etc. after the gov. takes out its cut for their employee salaries, etc. I’d prefer to give directly to my neighbor as charity, but gov. has other desires for my time and money.

    Through all this, most families sacrifice by having both parents work to pay these exhorbant taxes to support the gov. charities. They sacrifice so much that it hurts, in fact it painfully hurts. They are willing to sacrifice their children for the gov. charities by spending more time at work than with their children.

    Thats the nice thing about governments that are socialist, communist or leaning that way (the USA). Everybody is forced to be charitable (taxes & gov. programs) or be in need of charity. These governments are especially good at creating more need for charity by creating more needy people.

    Comment by Speaking Up — June 3, 2005 @ 9:52 am

  14. I’m not going to believe two things:
    1. If people were to recieve tax cuts predicated on cutting social security, they would give the money to those who need it.
    2. That taxes make it impossible to sacrifice.
    Also, Social Security was instituted by the government, but we must remember that those who are being supported by it are not being supported by charity. They contributed to social security as a mandatory retirement plan. They are not the recipients of donations. They are people recieving the return they were promised for their own work. You can say what you want about the covernment’s decision to implement social security, but the people recieving it are not looking for entitlements, except that they, perhaps, feel entitled to revieve what they were promised when they began paying money as an assurity against their future.

    Comment by Steve H — June 3, 2005 @ 12:25 pm

  15. Speaking Up,

    I think that when it come to caring for our souls we give to the poor even if the government is taking ,ore from us than we want. Then it is a real sacrifice. Annegb is right — we cast it upon the proverbial waters and exersize faith that it will all be worth it. No government policies can take away our ability to sacrifice as we are motivated to do so by the pure love of Christ. The worst taxation schemes can do is limit the amount we can give. But when it comes to our souls, the amount doesn’t matter as much as the actual level of sacrifice we give. Thus the widow’s mite is more valuable to her soul than the larger amounts from the rich men.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 4, 2005 @ 10:53 pm

  16. I’m not going to believe two things:
    1. If people were to recieve tax cuts predicated on cutting social security, they would give the money to those who need it.
    2. That taxes make it impossible to sacrifice.

    – Steve H

    1. People did spend money on those who needed it before social security and other welfare gov. scams. Check your history, charity did exist before FDR! Look at the amount of money and time given to charity before these gov. programs compared to now. Government crowds out the private sector. Check Mises for details. He’ll give you the economic run-down and explaination of human behavours.

    2. Actually my arguement is that Taxes are heavy sacrifices. If you pay 50%+ of your income to the gov. then, I’d say you’re sacrificing quite a lot! When children suffer because their mothers are out working to pay taxes that goes in part for welfare programs, then I’d say the family is sacrificing A GREAT DEAL! So much, so that the very upbringing (soul) of the child is in danger. What more sacrifice do you want?!?

    My point is: that the amount of sacrificing to pay the government to pay for these bloated gov. programs that “do good” is crowding out sacrifices that citizens would had made themselves. So instead of getting the direct joy of sacrifice by helping others, they get the indirect joy of paying taxes of sacrifice to help others. Giving becomes impersonal. Not to mention the large amount of waste that is done by the gov. by distrubiting the monies. The Austrian School of Economics can expain this to you in much greater detail. http://www.mises.org

    Comment by Speaking Up — June 6, 2005 @ 7:53 am

  17. Interesting discussion here. I agree that most human behavior is transactional. I wonder though, if some of this transaction may be internal. Maybe the ‘return on the investment’ of sacrifice isn’t a material blessing, but a change within myself. Instead of ‘earning’ a material reward by paying a generous fast offering, maybe I am earning a lessened emotional connection to my riches, and thereby freeing up more of my emotional capacity to be devoted to love of my Savior, and neighbor. Maybe my ‘earning’ may be toward a truly broken heart, which will then ‘earn’ me the grace the Lord needs to rebuild me into what he wants.

    Comment by Dan Anderson — January 27, 2007 @ 2:00 am

  18. Nice comments Dan. And welcome to the Thang.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 27, 2007 @ 9:53 am

  19. I agree that a sacrifice without any possibility of reward is a wonderfully romantic ideal. Unfortunately, in the large it is also incompatible with the plan of salvation.

    The problem is that unrewarded sacrifice leads in only one direction – death. Not just temporal death but spiritual death as well. And of course a world where all the good people are dead and the wicked rule is not a very attractive outcome.

    Comment by Mark Butler — January 28, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  20. Mark,

    Unfortunately, in the large it is also incompatible with the plan of salvation.

    So, do you subscribe to some form of ethical egoism?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 28, 2007 @ 10:31 am

  21. No, I do not believe I subscribe to any form of ethical egoism. What I am saying, however, is that any conceivably effective plan of salvation must provide for the salvation of the those who suffer and sacrifice on behalf of others. Otherwise, at some point they have a compelling interest to abandon their duty so that they themselves do not (eternally) perish in the process.

    And in the gospel, it is the hope of a glorious resurrection which serves this purpose – a promise that as Mormon said, “whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. ”

    I grant of course, that it is in one’s own self interest to be righteous, but it is equally if not more so in the interest of others for one to be righteous, so I deny the claim that keeping the commandments is primarily an egoistic enterprise just because there is a hope of salvation for all concerned. If social enterprises are to be described as egoistic simply because there is a benefit to each participant, it seems to me that the distinction between egoism and altruism loses its meaning.

    Comment by Mark Butler — January 28, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  22. Ok, I see your point about egoism vs. altruism. Let me ask a follow-up question which removes the implication about motive. Do you think there is ever an ought that turns out, in an eternal context, all things considered, to be contrary to your own self interest?

    Comment by Jacob J — January 28, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

  23. No. I think the eternal reconciliation between self interest (properly considered) and other interest (such that both are served by the same action) is a key attribute of the plan of salvation. I don’t think such a possibility is ruled out by metaphysical considerations, of course, just by the gospel as we know it.

    “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” (Eccl 11:1)


    “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it…For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. ” (Matt 16:25,27)

    Comment by Mark Butler — January 28, 2007 @ 11:50 pm

  24. I remember a quote from BY that I really liked, where he said the only man who had ever done anything without reward to himself was Jesus Christ alone, and that the rest of us acted with the ambition of our own rewards. I believe his point was that Christ had already enabled himself to receive his own “reward”, and was thus working out the “reward” for all of us.

    I don’t know that I am 100% in line with this thinking, and I’ll have to dig the quote up later, but thought I’d share a vague memory anyway…

    Comment by Matt W. — January 29, 2007 @ 8:42 am

  25. Matt W.,

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that sentiment is correct. According to the book of Hebrews:

    For it became him [the Father], for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation [the Son] perfect through sufferings.
    (Heb 2:10)

    Jesus Christ was made perfect through his suffering. If he had not suffered, he would not have been perfected. For that reason alone (there are others), he unavoidably had some self interest in the outcome.

    Compare Heb 5:8-9) and D&C 93:11-17.

    Comment by Mark Butler — January 30, 2007 @ 4:37 am