My dad is a career blood donor. I’ve lost count of the number of gallons of his blood he’s donated, one pint at a time, to help others in crisis. It costs him time, and each donation takes about a tenth of his blood out of his body. My dad needs his blood, but by offering his life-sustaining blood in small doses, he provides life-giving gifts to others. It’s a gift of sacrifice. It’s also a helpful picture of our biblical call to die to ourselves.

Through the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12:1, God calls us into a mystery. Throughout Scripture we see the power and significance of sacrifice for our relationship with God. Those sacrificial offerings were final. Blood was shed. They ended in death. In Romans 12, we learn of a new kind of sacrifice: daily, repeatedly, offering ourselves as living sacrifices. This is worshipfully giving ourselves—not to death—but to God and to others, in service to God. As living sacrifices, we become “spiritual blood donors.” Jesus explained that one mark of our relationship with him is that “whoever wants to be [his] disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow [him]” (Luke 9:23).

I’m convinced that taking up our cross is less about the weighty burden or the sense of martyrdom that grabs our attention, and much more about the resolve to give our lives, our rights, our talents, our moments, and our days to love God and love others for God’s mission and glory, often in simple ways.

In fact, dying to self happens most profoundly in small ways, rather than in grand displays of sacrifice, as we learn to live like spiritual blood donors. In Philippians 2:3-4, just prior to the description of Jesus, the Apostle Paul clearly explains our call as living sacrifices, with instructions that are dramatically countercultural: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Jesus also reminded us of what God declared in Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Our life of faith is demonstrated less in our being right or following the rules, and more in giving ourselves to others lovingly and graciously, letting go of ourselves, so that others can experience how precious they are to us and to God.

My dad needs his blood, and he deserves to keep it. But he knows that it can help others, too, and he gives what he needs, what is rightfully his, as a living sacrifice to bless others.

What does it look like to apply this truth in our lives? What does it look like to be spiritual blood donors, to deny ourselves and take up our cross, to be living sacrifices, who offer ourselves again and again, so that God’s grace, love, and glory may shine?

As a parent of small children, one significant concern for me was time. I tend to get stressed about schedules, and my oldest daughter has always lived at her own pace. I would often be frustrated that she didn’t “listen” and help me keep my schedule. But then one day, while I was frustrated with her because we were later than I’d planned to go to church for Wednesday night programming, I realized it wasn’t her fault that I was stressed. It wasn’t her responsibility, as a kid, to make my adult priorities fall into place. Most importantly, as I put my stress on her, it wasn’t going to help her experience church as the positive, rich, and life-giving experience I wanted it to be for her. That realization didn’t shut off my stress, but I did start learning to be a spiritual blood donor for her, by not putting the burden of my stress on her.

As a parent now of teens and emerging adults, I find that being a spiritual blood donor means having open and honest conversations with my kids without trying to manipulate them to do what I think is best. It means talking honestly about the positive and negative consequences of our decisions and the truth of God’s Word, but then allowing them the freedom of their own journey with Jesus. Their journey may not always look like mine or include the decisions I would make, but I will find ways to remind them that I love them and will work through things with them.

These days, people in our society have very little tolerance for those who think differently than they do. In addition, as followers of Jesus, we feel so much pressure to influence our society for good or to hold onto any influence or power we have. But as spiritual blood donors, we can model the kind of love that Jesus gave us and offers them—“while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8b). As spiritual blood donors, we can relearn the art of graciously disagreeing, working to maintain relationships with people who think differently than we do, even those whose convictions seem opposed to our own. As spiritual blood donors, as living sacrifices, we put aside our rights and our demands, humbly valuing others above ourselves and looking out for their interests.

More and more, we experience the challenges of cross-cultural ministry in our own society. As spiritual blood donors, we need to learn and implement the skills of cross-cultural ministry, entering into conversations and relationships first as learners, then as servants, and ultimately as God’s storytellers.

Dying to self, in this life of worshipful generosity, is rarely about taking an actual bullet for someone or putting our physical lives on the line. While our day-to-day spiritual blood donations can be emotionally challenging, most of the time our resolve to take up our cross and follow Jesus is lived out in mundane moments of grace and kindness.

There’s another miracle in this. So many things in life threaten us, wound us, and leave us as victims. But dying to self as living sacrifices doesn’t reduce us to victimhood; it mobilizes us as donors. We may grieve some of these experiences or wonder what might have been. But rather than feel that life is drained from us, we turn to God, the source of life and the master of mercy, and we’re restored in him; his grace is sufficient for us. As we take up our cross in this merciful exchange, “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11).

Rev. Brian Quade is Executive Pastor at Bethesda Lutheran Brethren Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. 

Freedom and Submission