Self-Sacrifice in a Selfish World

Catherine (nicknamed Birdy) feels caged at the start of Amazon’s new movie, Catherine Called Birdy, based on the book by Karen Cushman. Set in Medieval England, Birdy’s father is a lord who doesn’t seem to care for his daughter. Looking around her, Birdy sees all the ways that she is dissatisfied, listing her frustration that ladies cannot “go on crusades, be horse trainers, be monks, laugh very loud, wear breeches, drink in ale houses, cut their hair…, be alone, get sunburned, run, marry whom they will.” She feels lonely, misunderstood, and unloved, becoming frustrated with even her dearest friends when she feels she is suffering at their hands. More than anything, she wants freedom to do what she wishes, no matter the consequences.

As the story progresses, Birdy begins to realize that no matter how much she rages for what she wants, she ultimately hasn’t accomplished anything she set out to. Rather than being happier, she finds herself more isolated, confined, and hurt than before. Realizing that her actions are what have brought her to this place, she begins to make amends. She starts with her friends and finds that they have struggles of their own. She realizes that she has the means to help them because of the position she is in, but Birdy also knows that doing so will come at a cost to herself. Even so, she makes the difficult decision to sacrifice her own pride and freedom to selflessly help those she loves.

Though most people believe we should be less selfish, few people make the sacrifices required to become less selfish. In fact, culture today tells us to be more self-focused. It becomes so easy to get lost in a world of our own making on our social media feeds. The algorithms show us exactly what we want to see. We have become so used to being pandered to that we often forget or want to ignore the real world outside. We are constantly bombarded through marketing schemes which tell us: the only one who really matters is you. And in a world that just doesn’t get us and often doesn’t seem to care about us, it’s nice to feel seen.

The sad truth is that, despite the push for self-care and kindness, today’s generations are the loneliest ever recorded. It seems to be a dichotomy: the internet creates connections and influencers emphasize taking care of yourself, and yet people are increasingly more lonely, anxious, and depressed. To remedy this, more self-focus is prescribed—rage against the constraints of the world at large until you have the world you want. Focus on your health, your hobbies, your side hustle or dream job, your gender and sexuality—anything and everything you want. However, people find themselves only more broken. They don’t want to sacrifice anything they want, especially if they believe they won’t get anything out of it by doing so.

The biblical story of Esther unpacks themes of self and sacrifice. God made Esther queen of all of Persia, not because of anything that she has done, but because God wants to use her to save his people. After becoming queen, her cousin, Mordecai, refuses to bow to the king’s right-hand man, Haman. Because of this, an edict goes out that the Jews (Esther’s people) would be massacred. Mordecai pleads with Esther to go to the king—though it was forbidden to do so unbidden—to save her people, explaining that God has made her queen “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Esther is desperately afraid of sacrificing not only her position, but also her life. But she knows if she doesn’t do this, she and her family won’t survive. She agrees to talk with the king, recognizing that it has to be done, no matter what happens to her: “if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). After prayer and fasting, she invites the king to feast with her twice, telling him the second time that it is her own people who will be massacred. Because of her sacrifice, the evil Haman is killed and the Jews (the lineage of Jesus) are saved.

As Christians, we are meant to be a light to the world. We are meant to be characterized as the church of Acts 2, devoting ourselves to Christ and giving freely to those who have need. Sadly, we often find ourselves looking much more like Birdy and Esther at the start of their stories—a princess in her tower, only concerned with her own wants and desires, hardly noticing the pain of those around her. But “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Sacrifice is not easy. It’s often not desirable. But much is required of royalty, and Christians have been given a royal calling as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and image bearers of God, who is king over everything. When we as Christians are willing to sacrifice for others because of Jesus’s sacrifice for us, God does more in and through us than we ever could do alone.

The Way of Sacrifice
The motive behind sacrifice for Christians is much deeper than a simple desire to help others or wanting to feel good. It is because of the inconceivable sacrifice that Christ has made for us by suffering death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:8 KJV), and defeating it so that we could once again have a relationship with God. As Birdy finds out, there is an unlooked for joy in sacrificing one’s desires for another. Even so, it can often feel like an impossible task.

It can be difficult to change the way we operate, but by starting with prayer, or even fasting as Esther did, and asking God to help us to be more sacrificial, we can make a start. We can take an extra moment to hold a door for someone, put down our phones and other devices to help with dinner, or unload the dishwasher before playing a game, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends. These are small things that can get us started in making sacrifice a habit, and, though they may seem insignificant at first, they can go a long way in changing another person’s day and maybe even their lives.

When we sacrifice in little ways we gain momentum, realizing the joy of helping others. Not only this, but as we make small sacrificial choices, we begin to build habits, which then make subsequent choices easier. As one theologian put it, “Past choices and actions influence the kind of persons we become, and the kind of persons we become informs our choices and actions”1 We find that we are also changing, and our willingness and desire to make sacrifices is growing. Tim Keller talks about a man who was willing to put his own job on the line by taking the blame for a major mistake his coworker had made. When his coworker asked him why he was willing to do it, he told her it was because of what Christ had done for him.

Jesus is both our reason to sacrifice for others and the One who renders us capable of doing it. He changes us daily from the inside out when we allow him. God resists those who are proud (James 4:6), thinking that they are good enough without him, that they do enough without him, and that they can make it far enough without him. However, at the end of the day, they will find that they were never enough. Jesus bridges the gap of “enough,” enabling us to both want to and be able to make the sacrifices he calls us to. And day by day, we will look in the mirror of Scripture and find that we look a little more like Christ— because of him, we are a little more like our true selves, and we like who that person is a little better.

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Rebecca Sachaj

Rebecca Sachaj is enthusiastic about helping fellow believers deepen their relationship with God. After finishing her Bachelor of Arts in Rhetoric and Writing, she pursued further study in Apologetics through The Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. She plans to obtain her Masters in Apologetics, focusing on the connection between the Christian Imagination and Apologetics. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado with her two dogs, Strider and Samwise.