My youth pastor growing up encouraged us to offer our lives as “blank checks” to God. When you gave someone a blank check, you signed your name at the bottom, pre-approving whatever amount they wrote in later. You did this because you didn’t know how much they needed from you, so when they figured it out they’d fill in the amount and cash it.
This was always an unnerving experience for me, even when I knew the person well. What if my brother-in-law decides to empty my account and flee the country? How well do I know him, anyway?
Essentially, what Jesus asks from us is that we give our lives like a blank check to him. We put our “yes” on the table, so to speak, before he even asks the question.
Most of us, however, prefer the “gift card” approach to God. With a gift card, you know exactly what you are on the hook for. When it’s used up, that’s not your problem. If your friend uses that $25 birthday gift card to purchase an 84” high definition TV and she still owes $1975 on it, that’s on her, not you. Gift cards allow you to remain in control of your generosity.
God won’t accept gift cards. He only takes blank checks.
Alas, in recent years, when I share this illustration more and more college students look back at me with a quizzical look as if I were speaking a foreign language. “What’s a check?” One student told me, “I think we studied these things in my history class—‘checks’ and phones with cords that attached to a wall and horse-drawn carriages and such—but I’ve never actually seen one.”
So let me update the illustration: I have an app on my phone called “Venmo,” which conveniently allows me to transfer money from my account to someone else’s. It might be a large amount. But I’m always in control.
God doesn’t request a Venmo relationship with us. Instead, he asks for our bank username and password, so that he can take out what he wants when he wants.
The only terms Jesus will accept are absolute surrender. He doesn’t want our “gifts”—be that church attendance, moral purity, generous tithes, or missionary activity. He wants us. Christian conversion is surrender, not spiritual improvement. It’s like C.S. Lewis famously said, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he writes, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1 CSB). An Old Testament sacrifice was put on an altar and killed. That’s absolute surrender.
But the Christian surrender isn’t exactly like the Old Testament version. You see, even after we offer ourselves to God, we stay alive. As I’ve often heard it said, the problem with a “living sacrifice” is that it keeps wanting to get up off the altar.
Every single day—in every new situation, even—we have to reoffer ourselves to God. It’s not a once-for-all deal.
When I was 16 years old, we had a big moment at youth camp around a campfire where we sang, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” and threw a stick in the fire. The stick represented dying to ourselves and coming alive in Jesus. I threw my stick in the fire, and I meant it, but every day since then I’ve had to re-up.
My wife and I have added a practice of reconsidering every January what God wants us to do in our family, our finances, and our future. I love my job, and, in most ways, I am really comfortable. But am I still a living sacrifice? Am I ready to walk away from it all? God hasn’t asked me to uproot just yet. But my life is there on the altar, and it’s his to command.
Can you say that all that you are, all that you have—your talents, your possessions, your future—is all on the altar to God?
Most of us would not be as familiar with sacrifices as Paul’s original audience was—and in some ways, I’m grateful for that because it’s a messy business. But I do think we’ve lost out on the graphic nature of the whole thing. I’ve seen a sacrifice firsthand, up-close when I lived overseas. Not one of us in college would have wanted the image of our lives to resemble what I witnessed. We want victory and success and prosperity, convinced Jesus is going to help us do all of that because “we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
While I was horrified at the sight, as I stood there over the sacrifice, I understood for the first time what Romans 12:1 was asking me to do.
Are you ready for that to be the picture of your life—a weak, dying, helpless animal, unable to resist? Are you ready to say, “That’s what God has called me to, and that’s what I enthusiastically embrace”?
It’s not a popular decision, and it certainly won’t make you look better or more successful. It will bring you to the end of yourself so that you can experience the fullness of knowing God. It will leave you flat on your back in response to God’s goodness in the gospel.
It is a sacrifice, but it is life.