Have you ever thought about why God requires worship and sacrifice?
Is he lacking something? Does he need people to keep telling him how great he is because he has some sort of inferiority complex? Is he a type of schoolyard tormentor who makes little kids give him their lunch money in order to feel better about himself?
That is what it seems like to some, especially skeptics of Christianity. For example, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes that the God of the Bible is, among other things, a “megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
I doubt that many of us would go that far. We understand that God isn’t motivated by lack or cruelty.
However, do we really deeply understand what does motivate him?
The following is adapted from my book How to Talk to a Skeptic. In this article I explain that God is not motivated by a character defect or because he is looking to fill a void. God doesn’t need anything. Quite the contrary; God has so much of one thing in particular that it naturally runs over: love. Love is the reason that God desires worship and sacrifice from his creatures.
To support and explain this assertion, let’s start by defining love.
The Nature of Love
Love is first and foremost a response to value. It is a recognition and affirmation that someone is objectively valuable. To love is to proclaim to the beloved that he or she is of great worth. Many of us have experienced this, of course, in the very first stages of a relationship: You see that girl or boy across the room and think, “Wow! I’ve found someone very special!” Exactly. You don’t love someone you think is worthless. Love is not present or possible if one does not think the other person has any value.
Secondly, love is the giving of oneself sacrificially for the good of another. To love someone is not just to say that he or she is valuable, but it is to act sacrificially for that person’s good. It’s not enough to think that a person is great, or even to tell them that several times a day; we must act in a way that benefits that person. We don’t just love in word and thought, but in our actions (1 John 3:18).
Thirdly, love is the desire for unity with another person. You want to be together, but even more than that you want to be one with that person, at least to some degree. (Romantic love has a higher degree of union than friendship, for example, but each involves a degree of union.) To love someone is to hurt when they hurt and rejoice when they rejoice. It is to know them as they know themselves. This union is only possible as people share time and experiences together. As such, this longing for union includes a longing to simply be with the beloved. A parent who says they love the kids but never wants to spend time with them does not actually love those children according to this definition.
Much more could be said about the nature of love, but let’s leave it at that for now and talk about where I got this definition of love. Is it arbitrary? Did I just make it up out of thin air? No. It is based on the nature of God, who is love.
By that I mean that God has eternally existed in a mutually self-giving relationship within the Trinity. The Trinity involves the three persons of the Godhead recognizing the infinite value of each other and giving sacrificially of themselves to each other. Love, as I described it, is the essence of God’s existence.
This means that love is the most basic “thing” in all of reality. As Jean Danielou writes, “Without a doubt the master-key to Christian theology… is contained in the statement that the Trinity of Persons constitutes the structure of being, and that love is therefore as primary as existence” In other words, love is foundational to everything; love is what reality is all about.
As such, love is the reason God created the universe and everything in it. Creation is not an arbitrary act of a capricious God. Rather, it is the necessary result of a loving God. Creation is the natural consequence of love. New life and a larger family, which is what God created when he made Adam and Eve, is what love produces. It is love’s nature. There is a sense in which God’s Trinitarian family could not be contained; it had to expand and grow. Love had to continue to encompass more and more people. Creation is simply the expansion of God’s family of love. This means that the “purpose” of creation is loving family. Mankind is meant to be part of God’s Trinitarian life; we are intended to be children of God.
That is one aspect of what it means to be made in the image of God. Although this term encompasses attributes like rationality and sacredness and such, in the text it is primarily familial. For example, in Genesis 5:3 Adam fathered Seth “in his own likeness, in his own image.” God gave us a different nature than the rest of creation in that we are his children, his offspring. God’s goal in creating man was the creation of family.
So we are made to love God and love each other. That is our ultimate purpose in life and it is the end for which God works. As Jesus said, all the commandments are summed up in two lines: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-38). Again, this is not arbitrary. Could the meaning of life have been any different? No, because God is love.
So how does this definition of love fit into our topic of worship and sacrifice? Why does God require people in the Old Testament to sacrifice animals and why does he constantly command mankind to worship him above all other things? In fact, this is so important to God that it is the focus of the first two commandments:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exo. 20:3-6)
At first glance one can understand how this might make God appear petty and egotistic. However, as we examine this issue more closely, we will see that the truth is just the opposite. The fact is that God’s desire for worship and sacrifice is intimately connected to his love for us. Love and sacrifice and worship are inseparable.
Love, Worship, and Sacrifice
To worship is to ascribe worth to something or someone. To sacrifice is to give up something. To love someone you must do both. Love and worship and sacrifice go together in that you generally love what you worship and sacrifice is a part of both love and worship. I think we see this principle in our relationships everyday.
For example, have you ever heard someone say, “He just worships the ground she walks on” or “She absolutely worships her husband?” These are good and proper sentiments. To say that you “worship” your wife is to say that you ascribe great worth to her and are willing to do anything for her good. This is a sure sign of love.
We can also see this truth in potentially less commendable examples. If you hear that your friend “worships the Green Bay Packers” it may not cause too much alarm (because you think that hyperbole is being used) but if you hear that he is “worshipping money” or “worshipping alcohol” you probably should be concerned, especially if it is at the expense of his wife and children. Why? Because money and alcohol (and football, for that matter – in today’s culture it may not have hyperbole) are not as valuable as one’s family. It is wrong to ascribe more worth to stuff and sports than you do to your wife and kids because those things are not as objectively worthy as your family.
As such, if a man truly loves his wife and kids more than money and football and beer, he will give up those things if necessary. In other words, he will sacrifice those things if they get in the way of his family relationship.
The principle also applies to other aspects of family life. My wife and I have our four children, and if getting married is like attending the college of “How to learn to sacrifice,” then having kids is like going to graduate school. Parenting is all about sacrifice. From changing dirty diapers to paying for university, parents give of themselves for their children. Why do we do it? Because we love our kids. That is to say, we think our kids are far more valuable than anything else we are giving up for them. We worship them and are willing to sacrifice on their behalf. That is what love is.
So, then, a major key to love is to only worship what is truly worthy, and then to only ascribe the proper amount of worth to that thing or person. We need to keep our love ordered correctly. Some aspects of creation are worth more than others. Animals are worth more than rocks and humans are worth more than animals. We should not sacrifice the good of our child for the sake of the dog, for example. This is not arbitrary; it simply is the nature of reality. To ascribe more worth to a rock that to a person is to live contrary to the real world.
For example, if a man decided to sell his children into slavery for 30 pieces of gold, he would be doing the wrong thing not because of some arbitrary standard, but because his children are actually and objectively worth more than all the gold in the world.
Now, given that the purpose of life is love and to love is to intimately tied to sacrifice and worship, we can accurately say that we were created for worship and sacrifice. Specifically, we were created to worship of God and sacrifice to him.
Is God egotistical for desiring love and worship and sacrifice? Not at all, because he is worthy of them. Would we say that a wife is being egotistical for wanting her husband to love her and the kids instead of football and alcohol? Absolutely not. She just wants him to live in accordance with the truth. The truth is that his family is much more important than those other things. To live contrary to reality simply doesn’t work. It leads to nothing but trouble, like trying to run your gasoline powered car with nothing but water in the fuel tank.
This is how we need to understand God’s desire for sacrifice and worship. He did not create man in order to have his ego pumped up. He created man in order to have a reciprocal loving relationship with him. He wants to love and be loved. God is not an arbitrary egomaniac for desiring man to value him above all else. The simple fact is that God is worth more than anything else. To keep our relationship with him in tune with reality, we need to ascribe more worth to him than anything else. To not do so is to turn reality on its head, which always causes problems.
The Meaning of Life
We exist to love God and love each other. That is our ultimate purpose in life and it is the end for which God works. We talked earlier about how the first two commandments involve worshipping nothing ahead of God. Now we see why. It’s all about love. As Jesus said, all the commandments are summed up in two lines: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-38).
Given that the purpose of life is love and to love is to give of ourselves for the good of others, we can accurately say that we were created for sacrifice. We were designed to give of ourselves for others. At its core, sin is a refusal to do that. To sin is to live out of tune with reality. Sin is a refusal to offer your worship and sacrifice to the proper being, God, and instead offer it to something or someone else. Mankind’s fall was and is a failure to love.
In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve saw that the fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom (Gen. 3:6) and they decided that they wanted those things more than God. They would not sacrifice temporal, worldly benefit for eternal relationship with God. They decided to worship and serve the created thing rather than the creator, which is what we all do (Rom. 1:23-25). Practically speaking, we value ourselves and our earthly pleasure above all and, as a result, are unwilling to give it ups for God or anyone else. A good picture of mankind’s base sin is the story of Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of food (Gen. 25:34). We refuse to love who we are meant to love, the one that is truly worthy of our love, and therefore our proper inheritance within his family is squandered. That is our foundational problem.
What God needs to do, then, is teach us to love.
Learning to Love
Again, family life gives us a good picture of this process. Children are not naturally self-giving. Quite the opposite in fact; they are born with a penchant for pride and selfishness. They have to learn to love.
From my experience, I think this happens primarily in two ways: 1. By example and 2. Through rules. I have wonderful parents and I grew up watching them give and give and give for others. They dedicated their lives to their children and to the spreading of the gospel and I have tried to model their example. As I do, I realize that they are the ones who showed me what it is to love. However, it wasn’t just their example. They also had rules. My sisters and I weren’t given voluntary guidelines about how to play together or divide our toys: we were forced to share. I am very thankful for that now, and I enforce the same rules on my kids. They either share their toys (and every so often give some of them away to kids who don’t have any) or they don’t get to play with them. In this way I am trying to guide my children toward being loving people. I don’t want them to grow up to be self centered, egotistical brats. More specifically, I don’t want them to grow up valuing themselves or their toys and games more than their siblings. One of the main reasons for forcing kids to share is to get in their heads that other people are more important than toys and that we should value the other person’s experience more than our own. By forcing children to give up some time with the doll or the race car, I am trying to help them see that the other person is more important than either of those items, as fun as those things may be.
God uses the same type of techniques to teach us how to love. 1. He demonstrates love to us by sacrificing for us and 2. He puts rules in place that are intended to push us toward placing the proper value on things. That is where all the rules about sacrifice come in. They are intended to teach us to love God and break us from our love for everything that is not God. Sacrifice is not commanded because God needs what we have to offer. Sacrifice is commanded because we need to give it to him. We can see clearly how this works in the Exodus story.
Sacrifice and the Exodus
The requirement to sacrifice was the original reason the Israelites were to leave Egypt. When Moses told Pharaoh to let God’s people go, he explained that it was so the Hebrews could go sacrifice in the desert (Exo. 7:16). After the plague of flies, Pharaoh said he would allow the Israelites to worship, but only within the land of Egypt. Moses refused the offer, explaining that the sacrifices that the Israelites were going to offer would be detestable to the Egyptians and cause an attack on the Israelites (Exo. 8:25-26). Why would the sacrifices of the Israelites be detestable to the Egyptians? Because the Hebrews were going to be sacrificing animals that the Egyptians venerated.
Egypt was a land of many gods, somewhat similar to India today. And like modern India, certain animals were considered holy. I have travelled to India several times and one of the first things you notice is that cattle have a lot of freedom to roam. That is because in Hinduism, cattle (and other animals) are venerated. As such, when I am in India, I do not suggest to the people that we lasso a wandering cow and slaughter it for the evening meal. That is the principle that Moses is applying here. He does not want to sacrifice within sight of the Egyptians because he knows that the animals being sacrificed are holy to them.
Why would God command the Israelites to sacrifice animals that were worshiped by the Egyptians? Because the Israelites were worshiping them too and God wanted to break them of their idolatry! Israel had turned away from the one true God to worship foreign powers and now God was attempting to bring them back to him. (See Josh. 24:14-18, 1 Sam. 12 and Exo. 20:7 for explicit references to the fact that the Israelites were idolaters in Egypt.) By commanding the Hebrews to sacrifice the animals that they had previously worshiped, God is 1. Showing them that those beasts are not truly gods and 2. Placing them in a position where they have to give up what is less valuable for what is more valuable. Sacrificing the animals to the one true God puts them back in touch with reality; it orders the universe correctly. God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice because he wanted them to renounce the Egyptian idolatry to which they were attached. This can also be deduced from several episodes in their subsequent wilderness journey.
For instance, soon after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites complained because they had nothing to eat and God graciously provided them with manna (Exo. 16:1-5). Interestingly, in Exodus 12:28 it says that the Israelites left Egypt with large herds and flocks. Why were they not eating the cattle and sheep? Could it be that they refused to kill them due to the fact that they still considered them holy?
That thesis becomes all the more reasonable when we consider later incidents such as the building of the golden calf. Moses had given the people the Ten Commandments, the first two of which, remember, are “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exo. 20:3-4). The people readily agreed to these rules, but before their vow of obedience has finished echoing around the desert floor, they are back to worshiping Egyptian idols! While Moses was back up on Mt. Sinai, the people convinced Aaron to form for them an idol of gold, which they proceeded to worship (Exo. 32). Many scholars believe this calf represented the Egyptian god Apis. The people had come out of Egypt, but God had not yet got Egypt out of his people.
So what did God do? He gave them specific and mandatory rules for sacrifices which addressed their penchant for loving someone other than God.
We see an example of this in the instructions for the Day of Atonement. Aaron the High Priest was told to make two sin offerings; a young bull for himself (Lev. 16:6; 11) and a goat for the people (Lev. 16:5). The calf for Aaron makes sense because of the golden calf incident. God is specifically making a point to Aaron about worshipping cattle. But what about the requirement of a goat for the rest of the people? Well, we see in the next chapter that God commands the people to stop worshipping “goat idols” (or “goat demons” (Lev 17:7). It seems that while Moses was teaching the priestly code to Levites for 12 weeks (the first half of Leviticus,) the people were making offerings to some kind of goat idols. While the sacrifice of a goat at Yom Kippur was for all sins (Lev. 16:16), it would have sent a specific message to the people at the time about not venerating goats.
God’s commands about sacrifice were meant to break the people of their love for false gods and lead them to love the one true God. They were to give up something specific that they valued for the sake of someone they should value more. God didn’t ask them to sacrifice ants or something else they didn’t care about. He wanted them to give up the animal idols they were worshiping.
Again, this is a common principle in relationships. It means nothing to sacrifice something that you don’t value. I have a friend who recently gave up watching basketball so he could spend more time with his wife. This is an act of love. However, it wouldn’t have been an act of love to give up going to the opera for his wife, because he doesn’t enjoy going to the opera anyway. He had to give up something that he valued, basketball, for it to truly be a loving gesture.
As we discussed above, sin is the refusal to love God and to accept his love. It is the refusal to sacrifice to him and to receive his sacrifice. The commandments were given to help reverse that situation. We need to understand, then, that God’s interest in asking for sacrifice is part of his overall plan to get us to love him rather than something or someone else. Although this is similar to my friend’s basketball situation, it is far more serious: God’s commands to Israel were like one spouse asking the other to stop cheating with prostitutes. To God, idolatry is adultery. In fact, that is just the language God used in many places, including Judg. 2:17, 8:27, and 1 Chron. 5:25.
What does this mean to us today? We no longer have to sacrifice animals, but the principle of sacrificing as an act of love still applies. In fact, because of Jesus’ example of perfect submission and obedience in giving himself to the Father (Phil. 2:1-11) (doing what the first Adam failed to do), we now see clearly what those sacrifices were supposed to lead us to: presenting our complete selves as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1). Sacrifice was never about God needing animals. It was about breaking down barriers between man and God, whatever they may be. Sacrificing ourselves to God means that we must give up anything and everything that might get in the way of our relationship with him.
Jesus exhibited this principle consistently in his ministry, starting with the first disciples:
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matt. 4:18-22)
In order to follow Jesus, Peter, James, and John left their nets and their family. That is no small commitment. Why would Jesus ask them to do that? Because even the blessings of job and family can be idolatrous. They can keep us from God. I have been saddened several times in my life by stories of young people who want to become missionaries or work in ministry or study theology but are thwarted at every turn by parents who want them to do something more “success” oriented with their lives. It is frustrating to think that one’s family could come between you and God, but that is exactly what Jesus said would happen:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:34-39)
Notice that Jesus frames the issues as one of love. Whoever does not give up everything, including family, is showing that they love this world more than they love God. Loving God is necessary for eternal life: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:25-26).
This is the same point Jesus made to the wealthy young ruler when he asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). The man refused, and Jesus warned that having money makes it very difficult to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples were astonished at this and Peter, perhaps wanting to confirm that he was not on the same track as the young ruler, blurted out “We have left all to follow you!” (Luke 18:28). Jesus reassured him: “Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30). Those who love God will live forever with him. Those that do not will miss out on this blessing. The willingness to sacrifice is a clear sign of which side of that dividing line one is on.
God doesn’t just want certain parts of our lives; for example a tithe and a couple of hours on Sunday morning. He wants all of us. As such, he will ask us to sacrifice specific things that are (or might become) idolatrous to us. It’s not going to be the same for every person. Therefore, he might ask us for money, time, alcohol, the internet, a boyfriend or girlfriend or, in my experience, a job and proximity to family.
In my early twenties I faced what was easily the biggest decision of my life to that point: Should I move from Canada to California to attend Bible College and work with an inner-city mission agency? I had recently become serious about following Jesus and was quite convinced that God wanted me to go. Although I was extremely excited about it, moving away from friends and family is never easy and I struggled for a long time over what to do. At last, I settled on my course: off to California! Interestingly, just after making my decision, something came up that almost caused me to reconsider. Out of nowhere, I was offered a job on the oil rigs of northern Alberta. Money was scarce at the time and this represented a chance to make some really good cash. What should I do? I must admit, I was very tempted to stay in Canada and work. However, after much prayer and thought, I decided to give up the high paying job and go ahead and move. Looking back, it was definitely the right thing to do and I have never regretted my decision. Since that time, I have had many similar experiences, all of which have reinforced for me the lesson I learned way back then: relationship with God requires sacrifice.
To the person you are trying to reach, the sacrifices required by God in the Bible are often seen as evidence that he is a blood thirsty tyrant, bent on getting his pound of flesh from wherever he can. However, we have seen that sacrifice has been integral to God’s relationship with man since the very beginning and continues to be so today. While we don’t have to sacrifice animals anymore, God has not changed and the purposes for which God requires sacrifice have not changed. It’s all about love.