You just have to keep showing up until it becomes natural—till your body craves the workout. Then you’ll do it because you want to.”
I stared at the instructor. There was nothing natural about how I felt at the moment—doubled over on all fours, sweat dripping off of my forehead into a puddle on the floor. My heart raced, desperate to quiet the chaos in my body with a delivery of oxygen-rich blood. Taking a deep breath, I got to my feet and nodded toward her, confirming that I’d heard, and stumbled out the door. Somehow I gathered enough strength to roll my eyes. There was no way I was voluntarily coming back—no possible universe where my body would ever crave this kind of torture.
Two weeks earlier, I’d signed up for a fitness challenge at the prompting of a friend. The program included meal plans, temporary membership at a local gym, and training support. The decision to enroll had been simple enough. At the time, I’d prided myself in making it—I was ready to get serious and reach my goals. Things got slightly more difficult as I looked over the meal plan—it was heavy on fresh fruits and vegetables and included strange oils, lean meats, and no processed foods. Again, I assured myself: This would be hard, but I was ready to make the sacrifice.
I soon discovered that the real challenge didn’t lie in menu planning or grocery lists. It was in the daily, hour-by-hour choices. Bypassing the croissant at breakfast, upping my protein intake, opting for small meals throughout the day, and yes, showing up at the gym. Part of what made this difficult was that, like many people, I had learned a view of sacrifice that isolated it to a specific moment in time. The moment I chose to join the challenge. The moment I planned menus for the week. I wasn’t prepared for the constancy that pursuing health required.
There was no way I was voluntarily coming back—no possible universe where my body would ever crave this kind of torture.
To be fair, I came by this understanding of sacrifice naturally. Over the years, movies had taught me that soldiers became heroes at one precipitous moment, when the universe presented them with a choice to do the right thing. In the church, average men and women were made extraordinary the moment they chose to obey the call of Christ. The missionary who leaves her native shore to spread the gospel. The young girl who hides innocents from certain death.
There was little buildup, little behind-the-scenes explanation of where this otherworldly strength came from. It just was and always had been. And so, like many people, I began to see sacrifice as something that happens in one fantastic moment.
But what if sacrifice doesn’t happen in a moment? What if it isn’t one choice but something you learn bit by bit, day by day? What if you just have to show up until it becomes natural?
Perhaps this is why the prophet Samuel told Saul that God desires obedience rather than sacrifice. While we’re thinking of the great things we’re going give God, God knows better. He knows that sacrifice happens in small, deliberate ways. He knows that if we’re not obeying Him now, we’ll never be able to obey Him when “the moment” comes.
Maybe this is why Christ tells us that in order to follow Him, we have to daily deny ourselves and take up our cross. Each day as you heft that rugged, splintered beam of obedience, as your muscles tear and your lungs cry out and your heart beats through your chest, you are preparing yourself for the day when He calls you to finally lay your life down. Each day as you turn away from the world and toward Him, obedience gets a little easier and sacrifice becomes a little more natural.
Jesus could sacrifice His life at the end because He’d already been sacrificing it all along.
And maybe, this daily obedience is exactly how Christ Himself lived, how He was ultimately able to say, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Decades of being about His Father’s business and doing only His Father’s will had prepared Him to be obedient even unto death. He could sacrifice His life at the end because He’d already been sacrificing it all along.
I showed up at the gym a second time. In many ways, it was just as hard as the first—muscles tearing, my body perspiring in a dying-to-myself sort of way. Then I showed up a third time. A fourth. A fifth. And slowly, I discovered that the trainer was right. My body did begin to crave the workout. When I skipped, I missed it; and when I pushed through, I found a different, more disciplined person on the other side.
Maybe the biggest sacrifices depend on a whole lot of smaller ones.
And maybe spiritual sacrifice means daily saying no to our selfish impulses. Daily feasting on His nutrient-rich word, daily sustaining ourselves with His presence. Daily listening to His quiet voice as He trains us and urges us on. Maybe spiritual sacrifice means doing all of this daily work until it becomes natural to us, until we finally become people who can do nothing but obey when He calls.