There is an inexplicable connection between love and self-sacrifice. The ultimate example is the cross: Christ laying down His life so that we might have life, true life in Him. Parents offer self-sacrifice by design. In his book “In the Grip of Grace,” Brian Chappell tells of one mother’s self sacrificing love. He writes:
“On Sunday, August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from Detroit airport. One hundred fifty-five people were killed. One survived: a 4-year-old from Tempe, Arizona named Cecilia.”
“News accounts say when rescuers found Cecilia they did not believe she had been on the plane. Investigators assumed [she] had been a passenger in one of the cars on the highway onto which the airliner crashed. But when the passenger register for the flight was checked, there was Cecilia’s name.”
“Cecilia survived because, as the plane was falling, [her] mother, Paula Chicon, unbuckled her own belt, got on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms around her, and would not let her go.”
Heroic measures like this touch us deeply. In John 15:13 Jesus says, “No one has greater love than to lay down your life…” whether for a child, or a friend, or perhaps even a stranger. Self sacrifice.
I’ve also been thinking of a more humdrum understanding of self-sacrifice. I’ve been thinking of self-sacrifice on a daily basis. It’s the series of good natured self-sacrifices of accommodation, the willingness to change to help someone else. It’s a mom cheerfully giving up her career to tend her kids; it’s a dad who willingly does the same thing, willing to be the home-schooler while his wife is employed. Either way it is parents putting their kids first; it is love manifested as self-sacrifice. It’s the willingness to change for the betterment of others.
Here’s some perspective on this. Psychologist Stephen Gilligan says that people don’t want to be changed, they want to be blessed. One of the main reasons people resist change is because they don’t perceive it as blessing. He defines blessing as “an outcome state that is of greater value than is currently present.”
In many cases people resist change because they perceive the outcome to be of lesser value. In Luke 18:18 and following, we have the story of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus informed him that he needed to get rid of his money and give it to the poor and then follow him, this member of the ruling class could not perceive that following Jesus was more valuable than his current wealth and position. How could following Jesus be more of a blessing than his financial assets and his political and social status?
One of the reasons we revere our mothers so much is that in almost all circumstances they were—and are— willing to change to accommodate us. They take on stretch marks and heartburn and heartache for our benefit. We also revere our dads for depriving themselves for us, sometimes taking on two jobs to make sure there is food and clothing and shelter— and then there are all the duties of both parents: of diapers and laundry and dinners and dishes, of dispensing wisdom and discipline, and trips to “Mickey D’s” or Taco Bell, of kissing booboos and teaching a toddler the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil, of coaching Kids’ Sports Soccer, of sitting in the drizzle to watch the game as your kid’s team gets clobbered, of waiting up way past bed time to hear all about the prom, and so much more.
Dr. Gilligan goes on to say that true self-sacrifice must be based on the awareness that there is a greater reward for the person offering the sacrifice than not offering it. Almost all parents say and believe that the sacrifices they make for their kids are worth it. The blessings are there, even when kids are aged two and then later as teens.
Gilligan offers a warning, however: “Any blessing that comes to us at the unwilling expense of someone else is not a blessing, it is theft — and it will be [resented and] resisted and it will not be sustainable.”
After four plus decades of ordained ministry, I have come to realize that love has many enemies: hate, disdain, ignorance, brutality, contempt, apathy, the quest for dominance and so on, but I think perhaps the greatest enemy of love is resentment. Resentment is feeling that you always get the short end of the stick, of always being passed over for promotion, that no one appreciates your gifts and skills and efforts and abilities, of being consumed by jealousy and envy, of believing that you are under-appreciated and that you are surrounded by a federation of dunces, that you are a princess who had been kidnapped by Troglodytes and were reared beneath your natural station.
For most of us, our resentments aren’t that intense but for some they are quite strong; you see them, they’re generally scowling, expressing chronic disapproval. I see it all too often in moms and dads who resent their kids because they, the parents, feel deprived of something; they feel that their kids have somehow stolen something from them: a career, a social life, money. By the way, any parent who resents his or her children is going to help make a very nice living for a psychotherapist when they, the kids, get older. Resentment permeates, particularly in little ones. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t go away and it scars for life. Resentment is an insidious form of abuse.
Resentment is the basis of Satan’s hatred for us as God’s children; he thought he was the special one—not us—and that’s why he led the rebellion in heaven that St. Michael and the loyal angels thwarted. The message the devil sends to each of us: “You’re no good, you never were any good, you never will be any good,” is the message of one who resents our existence. Satan wants to shame us, to have us believe that we are not worthy of being loved. A parent who resents his or her children shames them, and in so doing presents the same basic message: you are not worthy of being loved—you never were worthy of love—you never will be worthy of love.
Love is not just for brief, intense moments like airline crashes. Love is for the long term. Love is in the humdrum and the boring as well as the times of adrenaline rushes and fear and joy and extreme bravery. Love hangs in there—with good humor and warmth— when the ego says to bail out.
How do we get this self-sacrificing love? For many it’s hardwired—especially in mothers. It’s part of natural moral law; you find it in all sorts of critters, but unfortunately some humans, for whatever reason, don’t naturally seem to have it, but any and all of us can receive it supernaturally by the power of the God who loved us first, who teaches and compels us to accept this love, and then to share it with others, especially our children. Sometimes circumstances and feelings seem to tell us that God’s love is not present. When we give into that falsity, we give into something that is terrible, that may lead us to pull back, or skulk off, or even just to wonder off, to separate from God and that is the manifestation of sin and the definition of Hell—the ultimate, permanent, eternal separation from all that is loving and holy.
Sin is usually the result of our tendency to be self-absorbed (remember the bumper sticker: “It really is all about me.”) Sin always interferes with our attempts at love, we need Grace to counter the sin and to strengthen our resolve. And it is important to note that the word grace is from the same root as gratitude.
I believe firmly that the central ingredient of love is gratitude. If I am not grateful, then I don’t think I can be loving. If either parent is not grateful for her or his kids, then the kids will most probably be ignored, abused, abandoned, ridiculed and, above all, resented. They will be perceived as a burden; thieves who have stolen the blessing from the parents. But when parents are grateful for their children, no matter how difficult they may be at times, then the parent will love them with a fierceness and gentleness that no other can emulate.
And here is a word of hope. Just as sin is “all about me,” so is love “all about me…being forgiven and accepted and empowered to love others through the self-sacrifice of Christ.” It’s realizing that no matter how resentful I’ve been of others, especially my children, God loves me, no matter how abused or resented I was as a child, I am loved. All of us can know that God frees us from sin through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and then he empowers us to love even the most obnoxious selfish person, it’s because he’s forgiven us for being so obnoxiously selfish.
St. John put it this way: “This is love…that God loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for sin.” (I John 4:10)
As we ponder this, I want to share with you two stories about parental love. The first one is set in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, site of the 1992 Summer Games.
Derek Redmond, a British runner, was lined up for the 400-meter semifinals. He was probably thinking about the long, hard road he’d taken to get there. Four years earlier, at the ’88 Olympics, Derek had to withdraw because of an injured Achilles tendon, just 90 seconds before the race was to begin. He was incredibly disappointed. But in Barcelona, four years and five surgeries later, Derek was ready to roll. The starting gun went off, and so did Derek. A hundred meters into the race, Derek crumpled to the track with a torn hamstring.
Paramedics rushed out to help him, but he refused their help, waving them aside. He struggled to his feet, and started hopping and then falling and crawling, determined to finish the race. And then, a big guy wearing a cap that says “Just Do It” came charging out of the stands. He pushed a security guard aside, ran to Derek’s side and picked him up—and hugged him. It was Derek’s dad.
With his arm around his son’s waist, Derek’s dad helped his son limp the rest of the way around the track. The crowd at first was silent, and then they were on their feet, stomping and clapping and whistling and cheering and weeping. Millions of TV viewers around the world did the same. Finally, Derek and his dad crossed the finish line together, arm in arm, long after the other runners had finished the race …
And the second story: Solomon Rosenburg and his wife and two sons, and his father and mother were in a Nazi labor camp. The rules were simple: “As long as you could work, you would live. When you were too weak to work, you were exterminated.” Rosenburg watched his mother and father be marched off to their deaths and he knew that his younger son David was next, because he was a frail child. Every evening Rosenburg rushed back to the barracks after hours of backbreaking labor to search for his wife and children. When he found them they would cling together, giving thanks to God for another day of life.
One day he came back and could not find his family. Finally he found his older son Joshua huddled in a corner weeping and praying. “What happened?” his father demanded frantically. “Papa, David was not strong enough to work, so they came for him.” “But where is your mother?” “Oh papa,” Joshua said, “When they came for David he was so afraid.” Mama said, ‘there is nothing to be afraid of David.’ And she took his hand and went with him.”
Two stories of parental love—two stories illustrating the love God has for us. The fierce love of a protective parent who charges out to tend his child who is in great need—and the tender, gentle, self-sacrificing love of the one who takes our hand and accompanies us through the portals of death into life eternal.