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Often, when we westerners think of sacrifice, we think of the powerful example of Jesus Christ—but the spiritual practice of sacrifice is not limited to the single example of Jesus.
We can each participate in this sort of sacrifice as well, not by physically sacrificing ourselves, but by carrying out consistent, noble, selfless deeds and actions that exemplify spiritual qualities.
Serving others in a practical way is not just a sacrifice we make for a good cause. It is also the sacrifice God makes for us through our actions towards each other. As Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
Let each one of God’s loved ones center his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s grace. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha. p. 5.
In his talk about the four kinds of sacrifice, given in the United States in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha introduced the third meaning of sacrifice with a metaphor from nature:
If you plant a seed in the ground, a tree will become manifest from that seed. The seed sacrifices itself to the tree that will come from it. The seed is outwardly lost, destroyed; but the same seed which is sacrificed will be absorbed and embodied in the tree, its blossoms, fruit and branches. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 451.
The seed fulfills itself only by losing its identity as a seed. It comes apart—literally vanishes—so the tree can grow and develop.
This may mean that as we walk a path of service to others in life, our actions gradually change who we are. Perhaps we become more comfortable being around people from different backgrounds, or we’re less bothered by small inconveniences, or we crave more depth in our conversations with others. Through these experiences, we shed those qualities that keep us small and inert. To sacrifice is to release powers within us that connect us to something far greater than ourselves. We give up what is lower for something that is higher, which brings us to the fourth meaning of sacrifice:
As to the fourth significance of sacrifice: It is the principle that a reality sacrifices its own characteristics. Man must sever himself from the influences of the world of matter, from the world of nature and its laws; for the material world is the world of corruption and death … Man must strip himself of all these imperfections, must sacrifice these tendencies which are peculiar to the outer and material world of existence.
On the other hand, man must acquire heavenly qualities and attain divine attributes. He must become the image and likeness of God. He must seek the bounty of the eternal, become the manifestor of the love of God, the light of guidance, the tree of life and the depository of the bounties of God. That is to say, man must sacrifice the qualities and attributes of the world of nature for the qualities and attributes of the world of God. – Ibid., pp. 451-452.
We could say that sacrifice represents the work we put into becoming a better person—the constant effort of shedding self-focused habits and forming new altruistic habits infused with better, more spiritual qualities. The primordial pre-human parts of our psyche seek after physical comforts and pleasures, social status, and vengeance for past wrongs. But as we develop ourselves individually and collectively we exchange those for the nobler attributes of spiritual oneness illumined by God’s guidance for humanity—kindness, love, compassion, generosity, justice, wisdom, and many others.
This fourth meaning of sacrifice can help us understand that sacrifice is no hardship. Certainly, hardship can aid its progress. But on its own, according the Baha’i teachings, this sacrifice is valuable in itself.
The illumination of heavenly qualities creates human happiness and well-being. Understood in this sense, there’s no need to say that one group of people should sacrifice and another group doesn’t need to. In this fourth sense of sacrifice, whether rich or poor, privileged or marginalized, the harnessing of certain inner qualities empowers individuals and communities to augment their outward social practice. They sacrifice for everyone. For some it could imply a kind of assertiveness. For others it could mean the opposite. But in either case, persevering on a path of moral action requires strength of character and agility of spirit, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
Furthermore, to call on someone to adopt a higher standard of behavior does not attack them. Now, of course, some people are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances, and it’s not right to press them too hard. But for many of us, raising our personal conduct to a higher level is not too much to ask. A call to sacrifice, in this fourth sense of the term, affirms the dignity and nobility of a person’s capacity for moral action.
For example: if someone persuasively makes the case to me that eating less meat will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that isn’t a demand to accept more suffering in my life—even if I love steak. They’re not trying to hold me down. They’re showing how I can lift myself and others up, giving me an opportunity to rise above my selfish nature, fine-tune my spiritual powers, and apply them for a cause greater than myself, for the good of all.
To measure my happiness in purely physical comforts means settling for a cramped and suffocating vision of human existence. In general, once we acknowledge that there’s more to life than chasing instant gratification, a lifestyle of trying to make the world a better place becomes a lot more appealing.
We’ve grown up in a society that on the surface appeared orderly and well put together, but on its margins and hidden out of view has been deranged and hurtling towards disaster. We were raised to think that so long as we had our personal affairs in order, that if we studied hard, got the right job, and found the right partner, that everything would be fine. But as the years go by, the veil peels back, and we perceive that living according to only our own self-interest is not just inadequate. It is immoral, if it’s even still possible in the first place. We are all connected. As we plunge further towards the fearful and uncertain core of the 21st century, who is there that has ever taught us to give ourselves sacrificially to a worthy cause, to a higher and more noble purpose? Who is there that has even taught us what sacrifice is? Some have—Christ and Baha’u’llah certainly did. But how few they are, and how few people really listen and make the necessary sacrifices! Let’s change that.