An Acceptable Sacrifice
Words. They are everywhere! Doesn’t it sometimes seem like they are wasted uselessly, or worse, used as weapons of emotional, mental and spiritual violence? They could be such a powerful source of healing and nurturing.
I have a friend who was verbally abused as a child and teenager. Every day words of criticism were spoken over her, telling her she was not good enough and that nothing she did was right. Only by a miracle of Christ’s transforming love has she survived such an upbringing and developed an ability to speak life-giving words into the lives of others.
Another friend has not experienced such transformation. Unhealthy environments and unwise choices have led her to continuously speak spiteful and critical words to those around her. This has isolated her from those who would most want to help and love.
Words – they are used in a plethora of ways and seem to always be present. So it would truly be a wonder if we would practice this word spoken in Psalm 50, verse 7: “Hear.” Would we hear? Would we listen? God has made quite a commotion in the passage leading up to this word, summoning the earth through the shining sun, devouring fire and mighty storm. God has a message to speak, so listen everyone.
It’s not a happy message. God seems to have a rebuke in mind. And though our lectionary passage skips over quite a few verses here, it’s important to note what they have to say. They tell us God is not very interested in typical sacrifices given thoughtlessly. God certainly doesn’t need them, but desires something different, which we’ll get to eventually.
But first, what is the rebuke? We find much of it is related to words. In v. 17, God says, “you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.” Here is disregard for God’s words, a refusal to receive discipline and correction. As a result, the people’s words reciting covenant relationship with God are useless and empty.
In v.19, we read “you give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.” It would seem careless words are spoken which result in evil, deceitfulness and lies. Even more specifically in v.20, God points out “you sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.” The sin of slander is named outright, committed against those who are supposed to be one’s own brother and sister.
Who of us could escape this rebuke? Could we find someone who never disregards the words of the Lord, and who speaks words that are a perfect balance of grace and truth? I suppose it is possible. I know some pretty amazing people. But I’m just going to guess our brother James is onto something when he wrote “no one can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). Perhaps everyone ought to pay attention here.
What is the answer? How do we battle words of evil and deceit – whether they come from our own mouth or another’s?
The passage gives us the answer, and if we are not careful we will think it too trite or simple and will fall again into disregarding the words of God. In two places within the psalm comes the exhortation: bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving (v.14, 23).
What is a sacrifice of thanksgiving? Is it simply a use of good manners, a matter of saying “thank you” when we receive something from someone? (I will rejoice with everlasting joy the day my children offer this sacrifice!) Perhaps this is one facet. Is it about nurturing a habit of gratefulness? Each year on Facebook in North America, usually in the autumn season, there is a sudden splurge of thanksgiving posts, describing all kinds of things for which people are thankful. Some people use the holiday as a time to practice thankfulness. This is a good exercise, not only for a month of the year, but as a lifestyle habit. These are all lovely practices and we would do well for them to be a regular rhythm of life.
I wonder, though, if a sacrifice of thanksgiving might indicate something a little different. Is it really a sacrifice to say “thank you,” or to practice a habit of being grateful for what we have? Perhaps there are times when this is so. But for something to be a sacrifice usually means there is a cost associated with it. When, then, would offering thanks actually be sacrificial?
Going back to the passage with new eyes might be beneficial. Looking again at v.19-20: “You give your mouth free reign for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.” What if this is no longer a rebuke against us for something we’ve done, but a reminder of words spoken spitefully and deceitfully against us? Is it not typical for us to react defensively? Some would even believe we are justified to respond in our own defense; we are entitled to correct untruths spoken about us.
But what would a sacrifice of thanksgiving look like here? Could it be that, instead of reacting defensively, we might speak words of blessing, hope and thankfulness in return? Would this not cost us something? When we are hurt, it can be instinctive to hurt back. But suppose we resisted that urge, swallowed our pride, and offered words of love? Even –dare we say – thankfulness? Thank you for offering that insight to me… Thank you for that correction; I hadn’t thought of it that way before… Thank you for helping me see things differently. What kind of insanity would that be? It is certainly not a reaction that can happen outside of the grace of God in Christ—the One who, in the midst of his pain and suffering, offered the words over his persecutors, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Sometimes this might not be an appropriate response. There are times when evil words—abusive words—need to be corrected so truth can be spoken. But perhaps this doesn’t happen as often as we think.
Might there be additional insights our passage offers us about what it is to bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving? To look again at v.17: “you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you,” some of us might be reminded of times we have received correction from parents or others in places of authority in our lives. It is not pleasant. It is not something we desire. And so it becomes natural to react this way to the correction or discipline we might receive from God. We don’t want it. Those of us who are most mature and gracious might be able to receive such correction. But even then, is it a realistic expectation that we would be thankful for such discipline? I’m trying to imagine my children thanking me for taking away their toys as punishment for being disrespectful. I simply cannot imagine it. Similarly, we don’t typically respond with thanksgiving to God, or anyone, for disciplining us.
Here is an interesting thought coming from the prophet Jeremiah: “Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure; not in your anger, or you will bring me to nothing” (Jeremiah 10:24). While there is an entire context to this verse which I can’t address here, there is something to be said for inviting God’s correction into our lives. Could it be that opening ourselves to discipline from God would make us stronger? Might it bring God’s presence into our lives in a new and vibrant way—giving us strength and endurance for hardships and pain which inevitably make their way into our journey? Is this not a reason to give thanks? Would it not be a sacrifice of thanksgiving?
Oh, that we would give care to our words! That we would use our outlets in social media as a way to offer grace and truth. But even beyond that, to have grace to repel evil words with words of thankfulness. To open ourselves to the discipline and correction of God (through others, even?) that would build the strength of our spirit and compel us to live recklessly loving lives for the Kingdom.
Perhaps it would hurt. It could cost our status, our reputation, our pride, or even something more, to not respond with words of defensiveness. To offer words of thankfulness to others or to God in those moments of difficulty would be sacrificial. And maybe that is exactly the point. Maybe that is an acceptable sacrifice.