We're going to look at two examples of selfish sacrifices in scripture. Turn first to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.
The atmosphere of the early church was charged with the joy of generosity and the excitement of community. The hungry were fed, the naked were clothed, and the rich experienced a newfound freedom from the suffocating weight of wealth. (Wealth is not all it is cracked up to be. As G. K. Chesterton said, "[The rich] are dull because they are omnipotent."* Think about it.)
Ananias and Sapphira - presumably already believers - naturally enough wanted to contribute to this vibrant community, but for some reason their motives were distorted. Maybe they were simply attempting to keep up with the spiritual status quo, which is always a losing proposition. Maybe they were afraid to commit themselves wholesale, setting a little aside against the proverbial "rainy day." We don't know.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
God desires us to give cheerfully, but also truthfully. He desires us to enjoy the blessings of sacrifice, but only in the context of obedience. The scheme hatched by Ananias and Sapphira was essentially their attempt to serve God and money simultaneously, something we know from Luke 16:13 to be futile.
The fundamental problem was not that Ananias kept money for himself - it was all his anyway, as Peter pointed out. The fundamental problem was his hypocrisy. Many of us may be rightly ashamed to come to God empty-handed. But it is better to come empty-handed than to come with part of our offering still hidden under the bed. As Keith Green sings, "If you can't come to me every day / then don't bother coming at all."**
Now to Genesis 4: the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is famous for killing his brother, but he didn't just wake up one morning a psychopath. There is more to the story.
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?"
We are not told precisely why Cain's offering was rejected, because that is not the point of the story. What God intends for us to notice is Cain's response to his rejection. Instead of repenting and humbling himself before God, he sulked. His envy of his brother's spiritual success ate him from the inside out, exactly as James 3:16 describes, leading him eventually to cold-blooded murder. (1 John 3:12) And it all started with bringing a selfish sacrifice to God.
For Cain, Abel symbolized all the frustration of his unrequited devotion. The only problem was that Cain's devotion was never genuine, for genuine devotion never has a thought for itself.
Hebrews 11:6 confirms God's character as one who rewards those who seek Him, and on that basis we can safely assume that the problem is always on our side. As God Himself says to Cain, "If you do well, you will be received." It's not complicated.
One of the only sacrifices we can bring to God without a lot of serious soul-searching and motive-checking is something we all have: a broken heart. Some of us have not yet realized that it's broken, but it is. Only God can heal it, and He desires above all else that we would let Him. As Psalm 51 says:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
God has to get us to the point where we give up. Until then, it's all mirrors and smoke and drudgery. When we finally give up, we become what He has been gently asking for all along: a living sacrifice.
*G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, (Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2006), 120
**Keith Green, The Ministry Years - Vol. 1, "To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice
Scriptures cited: Acts 5:1-6, Luke 16:13, Genesis 4:2-7, James 3:16, 1 John 3:12, Psalm 51:16-17, Romans 12:2
All scriptures quotations from the ESV, (c) 2001 Crossway Bibles
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