General Stanley McCrystal was the soldier entrusted with leading the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. One of the things that McCrystal discovered early in his appointment was that a conventional approach to warfare would not work against an enemy that was waging war in an unconventional way.
To meet this unprecedented challenge, the general realised that he had to address the competitive culture that existed within the American military and intelligence establishment.
In order to achieve his objective of greater co-operation between the various agencies and sectors, he seconded some of his best officers to American embassies in the Middle East. He tells the story of how an experienced Navy SEAL was sent to one embassy. Despite his experience, it took months for him to earn the trust of the embassy staff. McCrystal recounts how for months all he did was empty the rubbish bins. Then, one day, the embassy found itself facing serious trouble. They turned to the SEAL for help. And because of his background, he was able to call people who had the expertise to fix the problem.
I can’t imagine what it is like to have a career move from covert operations in the special forces to putting out the bins, albeit at one of your country’s embassies. Suffice it to say, it must entail swallowing a whole lot of pride!
In Romans 12.1, Paul talks about offering ourselves as living sacrifices. If being a living sacrifice means anything, it means being prepared to let go of things. Those things aren’t necessarily just or even material things. The “things” might be more along the lines of certain entitlements or expectations.
Unfortunately, whenever we hear the language of sacrifice, we are inclined to think in terms of what we stand to lose. Let’s face it, Navy SEAL to janitorial duties at the embassy is not exactly a career trajectory most of us would want to celebrate!
What we forget is the incredible power of sacrifice.
So what does sacrifice achieve? You could write a book in answer to that question. Let me, however, give you three practical effects of sacrifice that can impact your world and mine.
Firstly, sacrifice has the power to break down barriers.
When we are prepared to let go of things which we have a right to expect, we begin to dismantle suspicion and sometimes even hostility, that others might feel towards us. If that Navy SEAL had demanded the kind of honour his military record deserved and refused the demeaning task that presented itself, his mission would have failed.
Ephesians 2.14 says that Jesus through His sacrifice, broke down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between Jew and Gentile. Sacrifice breaks down barriers.
Secondly, sacrifice builds bridges.
Before Jesus sacrificed His life on the cross, He sacrificed His life in heaven to become an earth dweller. The book of Hebrews reveals that He became for us a Great High Priest. It goes on to explain that because Jesus, in His humanity was tempted like us, He is able to empathise with us (Hebrews 4.15).
In the incarnation, God, in the person of Christ, built a bridge into a world of suffering humanity.
Every time that Navy SEAL carried out the rubbish, he was building a bridge into a world which didn’t understand him, perhaps didn’t want him, but one day would desperately need him.
Living sacrifices build powerful bridges into the world around them.
Finally, sacrifice eventually bears fruit that benefits everyone.
“Do you want to live a fruitful, fulfilled life?” is hardly the most searching question in the world. Of course people want to live fruitful, fulfilled lives! What doesn’t seem so obvious to most is that the letting go of sacrifice, or the sacrifice of letting go, is what opens the door to that life.
Months of doing work most would consider embarrassingly menial for such a capable soldier, eventually paid a huge dividend for everyone concerned.
Jesus described the fruitful life in terms of a seed falling to the ground and dying before it could bear fruit (John 12.24-24). We have to die before we live. We have to lose before we win. We have to sow before we reap. But eventually the sacrifice yields fruit that benefits everyone.