Possibly the most natural inclination for us humans is to be focused on our ourselves, each person looking to themselves and their concerns. This is natural from our first day on the planet. What do I need? Am I hungry, thirsty or cold? As we grow we learn to live in relation to others; we learn to share toys and as additional siblings come along, we learn to share parents’ attention. Could we say that the healthy person continues in a life-long process of gaining a wider and deeper concern for others? Parents learn to sacrifice for their children. Friends sacrifice for each other. Citizens sacrifice for the common good of society.
Because our brains are hard-wired (I’ll say designed) for empathy (link), we see that God designed us to develop into empathic people who choose to respond in love. We are given the opportunity to make choices that are consistent with how God created us to function best. To be human as God intended is to have empathy for others, leading to compassionate actions. Yet selfishness so easily entangles, making this decision to pursue compassion not always an easy one.
Ellen White considers these themes as she reflects on the life of Jesus.
The grain of wheat that preserves its own life can produce no fruit. It abides alone. Christ could, if He chose, save Himself from death. But should He do this, He must abide alone. He could bring no sons and daughters to God. Only by yielding up His life could He impart life to humanity. Only by falling into the ground to die could He become the seed of that vast harvest,–the great multitude that out of every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, are redeemed to God.
With this truth Christ connects the lesson of self-sacrifice that all should learn: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” All who would bring forth fruit as workers together with Christ must first fall into the ground and die. The life must be cast into the furrow of the world’s need. Self-love, self-interest, must perish. And the law of self-sacrifice is the law of self-preservation. The husbandman preserves his grain by casting it away. So in human life. To give is to live. The life that will be preserved is the life that is freely given in service to God and man. Those who for Christ’s sake sacrifice their life in this world will keep it unto life eternal.
The life spent on self is like the grain that is eaten. It disappears, but there is no increase. A man may gather all he can for self; he may live and think and plan for self; but his life passes away, and he has nothing. The law of self-serving is the law of self-destruction. (Desire of Ages, Ch. 68, pp.623-624)
This same lesson applies to leadership. The greatest Christian is the most humble servant.
“‘But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’ Again and again Christ had taught that true greatness is measured by moral worth. In the estimation of heaven, greatness of character consists in living for the welfare of our fellow men, in doing works of love and mercy. Christ the King of glory was a servant to fallen man.” (Desire of Ages, Ch. 67, pp. 613-614)
To this end, White encourages us to spend time in God’s word as an incubator for developing in righteousness and love.
As the word of God is meditated upon and practiced, the whole man will be ennobled. In righteous and merciful dealing, the hands will reveal, as a signet, the principles of God’s law. They will be kept clean from bribes, and from all that is corrupt and deceptive. They will be active in works of love and compassion. The eyes, directed toward a noble purpose, will be clear and true. (Desire of Ages, Ch. 67, p. 612)
- Even though humans are hard-wired for empathy, which enables moral reasoning, what role do parents and communities play in shaping children’s moral character?
- Does “dying to self” sound morbid or overly extreme? What do you think about the seed metaphor used in this context?
- Has anyone made a significant sacrifice in order to care for you? Or have you done this for someone else? What was your experience?
- How is it possible to guard against becoming resentful of others if we only sacrifice for them but never find healthy ways to have our own needs met?
- Are certain portions of the Bible more directly suited for training us in compassion, purity and empathy? How can we find these themes even in the dark and gritty portions of the Bible?