As I reflected on Jesus’ words to religious leaders about “mercy and not sacrifice,” it occurred to me that many Christians are preoccupied with sin and sacrifice. Whether decrying society’s sin, condemning personal sin, or trying to overcome sin, we tend to obsess, highlighting human moral failings and feeling guilty about our own. As a result, Christians are sacrifice-focused. We think we’ve got to give up something to prove our devotion, as if attempts to please God will secure us. We rush to make little offerings because we think God expects sacrifice. God, however, is averse not only to animals being killed on an altar without true repentance but to any attempt at sacrifice.
Jesus said, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13, NIV). Jesus was quoting the prophet Hosea, for whom the word mercy was hesed, which fundamentally means a deep and abiding love that is unfailing. Jesus’ reiteration of Hosea 6:6 does not fit well with typical Christian theology. Religion tells us that sacrifice is necessary for God to accept us. Though Hosea clearly says that loyal love is what matters most, religious doctrine states that God not only wants sacrifice but demands it.
Jesus tells me to learn what God desires. It is clear that faithful love rather than sacrificial ritual is what matters, but we have so much guilt reverberating in our heads that we don’t know how to celebrate God’s love. The only lesson that we’ve learned from sacrifice is about the sin problem to be solved which keeps us from recognizing the love that God really offers us. Our obsession with sin damages our ability to draw near to God. Though religion focuses on our sin and guilt, God wants us to know that we are loved, accepted, and forgiven. He wants us to know that we are welcomed into His presence, invited into a deep and abiding relationship. The invitation is not about sin but about restoration and relationship, which includes removing the sin that hurts us.
It’s not that God never wanted sacrifices, for without them, there would have been no salvation from Egypt, no sanctuary to teach us about God’s longing desire. While the sacrificial system gave credence to God’s concern with sin and justice, however, do we understand the purpose of this system? Instead of recognizing sacrifice as evoking repentance, enhancing relationship, and drawing us nearer to a loving God who abounds in grace and mercy, religion conceives sacrifice as a condition to God’s generosity. Sacrifice has been construed as acts of appeasement, coloring the way God is presented to us.
Jesus wants us to know what God thinks about us, to know that we are loved, accepted, forgiven, and included. Why does God desire mercy and lovingkindness? Because that’s what He is (Exodus 34:6). The Israelites who camped at the foot of Sinai required the time spanned in the Book of Leviticus to understand that God was calling them into an intimate love relationship. Religion may want us to obsess about our sin and guilt, but God desires our relationship and intimacy. Though God wants a relationship abounding in love, religion teaches us that God demands sacrifice, pushing us to view God as seeking conditions. This view of God, however, is rejected by Jesus.
Without risking the truths of Calvary, I see God giving Himself and providing self-substitution in the most extraordinary act of love the universe has ever seen. God enters our mess to help us draw near. Jesus’ self-offering love is not about punishing or killing but about the merciful and compassionate faithfulness of God who abounds in lovingkindness.
Biblical sacrifices were given in the context of a covenant relationship, so we dare not emphasize them disproportionately by highlighting sin. I do not negate the need for a sin-pardoning redeemer, but focusing on seeking acceptance by solving or overcoming sin prevents us from recognizing what God is really like, setting us up to miss His intimate call to sinners. When we fail to trust God’s mercy, we essentially reject His faithful love.
If God is not really offering us love, humanity is in trouble. However, He stands revealed to the world in unparalleled love (2 Corinthians 5:19). We celebrate God’s love for a sinful world by focusing on His lovingkindness—on His desire to draw us into repentance and on His changeless love. We focus on His lovingkindness until we are completely in love with Him.
Though religion wants us to focus on sin and shame, God wants us to know that He has already forgiven us and plans on loving us forever (Psalms 136). Though religion wants us to focus on sacrifice, God wants us to focus on His desire for relationship. God wants us to know that we are already accepted, loved, forgiven, and welcome.
Instead of focusing on sin, I focus on the beauty of God’s mercy and unparalleled love. I want to keep God’s desire for relationship prominent. I want to learn what “mercy and not sacrifice” means, so I can understand the kind of God I am involved with. God desires love and intimate relationship. If I go through the motions of religion with a sacrifice-only mindset, I will deny His deep and abiding love. God is calling to us. It’s not a call for sacrifice but an intimate desire for us to draw near—a call to experience a deep and abiding love relationship. How do you answer?
Craig Ashton Jr.