Self-sacrifice without Developing a Martyr Complex

February 11, 2018

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

Mark 8:34-37

Listen to this Sermon Now

Today we conclude our series on Christian Ethics for 2018 by talking about the concept of self-sacrifice. We follow Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice, laying down his own life for others. He taught that, in order to truly follow him, we should be willing to do the same. In our lesson today, he said we must be willing to pick up our own cross. The New Testament often echoes this theme of self-sacrifice.

The ethic is counter-cultural. We live in a me, me me time. But where would we be if no one ever made sacrifices to achieve anything outside of themselves? If we allowed our selfish ambition to override concern for our neighbors? What if we just allowed deceit, unethical behavior? No one wants that.

Most of the messages we receive say we should live for ourselves. We are bombarded with messages about how to achieve our own self-fulfillment. Remember when Snickers promised, “Total instant satisfaction?” Not a sugary snack filled with empty calories that can take the edge off your hunger. But a euphoric state of completion. But as soon as the sugar high wears off, the satisfaction is short-lived.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached the “Drum Major for Justice” sermon about the importance of service and sacrifice for noble causes. He warned about what happens when we get caught up in a life of selfishness where we only look to our own needs and get swept away by every promise advertisers make. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. (Make it plain.) In order to be lovely you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. (Yes.) That’s the way the advertisers do it.[1]

I could not believe that they twisted the words of that sermon in a Ram truck Super Bowl commercial to make it sound like he was saying you should be a person of service and what a person of service really needs is a new Ram truck. I know I was supposed to be booing the Patriots. But I booed the commercial.

We’re so inundated with the message that we can fill up the emptiness with stuff or focus on ourselves that we just buy into it.

While others play on your insecurities, faith teaches us we are okay; reminds us we are children of God. Somehow the way to getting true fulfillment in life, true contentment is not through continual self-service but through service to something outside of ourselves, some purpose, to helping others.

You want a better life, you feel like there is some void, something missing? Faith says you cannot fill it with that car or house or business deal.

Rick Warren of Saddleback Church wrote a bestseller The Purpose Driven Life wherein he talked about this notion and encouraged people to find what their true passion, their true purpose in life really was. Although there is a lot about the book that I struggled with, I fell in love with the first sentence, which simply states: “It’s not about you.”

“What do you mean, ‘It’s not about you’? It’s all about me, baby! That’s what I’ve been taught, that’s how I’ve been living. Me. Me. Me.”

When we think of sacrifice and service, we naturally think about people in the military or other service professions. But it doesn’t have to be full time job, but how you see your role in this world. To use the gifts you have to make a difference. Make the world better. Elevate others. If you want to truly find happiness you do it by finding your purpose. I like the old quote that says there are two great days in a person’s life. The day you are born and the day you discover why you were born. Have you discovered your why yet?

But even when we accept sacrifice as our path, there are things we have to be on guard for, ways we get tempted to twist the notion of self-sacrifice into something that is counter-productive and harmful.

One way sacrifice gets twisted is by thinking that Christians have to be doormats, that we just take a lot of garbage and that we have a moral compulsion to let people take advantage of us. But that isn’t what Jesus talked about or modeled.

We’ve all heard the stories about families who just assumed mom loved chicken wings because that’s what she always ate at the dinner table, but it turns out she hated wings but it was the only thing left by the time everyone else picked over.

True sacrifice is something one embraces willingly, out of a sense of a higher purpose. It’s okay, necessary, and healthy to have boundaries in life. A sacrifice is when you choose how you are going to give yourself for a higher purpose, willingly, even joyfully because you believe it is the right thing, or will bring about some higher good. But letting people use you is not what it’s about.

I’ve heard people who’ve been beaten up, sometimes literally suffering abuse thinking that the Christian thing is to let this happen to them because it’s their cross to bear. No. No. No. You don’t deserve that. Christ was about lifting people up, liberating them for lives that are whole and recognized.

The sacrifices you make should be things that you choose to give your life to, causes that give meaning and depth and breadth to your life, not stuff that leaves you feeling diminished and used.

The third thing to watch out for in being sacrificial is the dreaded martyr complex. A martyr complex is what happens to people when they turn their sacrifices into a sense of victimhood and trying to make themselves seem all noble while laying guilt-trips on people around them. Oh they’ve given up so much, they’ve worked so hard, and you haven’t done as much as them so you somehow always owe them.

Generally speaking, Martyr Syndrome is a condition in which a person uses their suffering, self-sacrifice, and role as a victim to manipulate others into psychologically rewarding them for their ongoing misery. In other words, these individuals actually enjoy their suffering and unconsciously see it as a means of self-gratification and (to some degree) personal accomplishment. [2]

They are usually horrible at asking for help or Lord-forbid, delegating.

You can never thank them enough. They often use their hard work or sacrifices as a shield where if you question anything about their behavior they turn it against you. “If it weren’t for me then this and that wouldn’t have happened. And I never get any thanks. This is the thanks I get. I went through XYZ for you.”

It’s unhealthy. Sacrifices that turn you like that aren’t what Jesus had in mind. People feel like you are always keeping score. That anything they saw will ultimately be turned against them. One person confessed:

Overdo. Complain. Repeat. Sounds like the worst motivational slogan ever, right? Welcome to how I roll. Biting off more than I can chew is standard procedure for me. (“Sure, I can volunteer for the spring carnival and make a resume for my niece and cook multiple options for dinner!”) And so is feeling fried and resentful later on. I’ll corner my husband for a thorough debriefing on my saintliness, hoping he’ll be overcome by a powerful mix of gratitude and admiration (gradmiration, anyone?). Instead, he typically says, “Oh, you didn’t have to do all that.”[3]

Everyday modern martyrdom generally has no grand mission behind it. The office sad sack who’s forever raising her hand for soul-crushing assignments, or the beleaguered sister-in-law who refuses to let dinner be a potluck—they’re not looking to save the poor or free a population. “They overdo it because they want their personal world to feel better,” says Pam Garcy, PhD, a Dallas-based psychologist and life coach. “They’re seeking fulfillment, connection, and a sense of importance.”[4]

Sometimes we think this is something we are doing to be a good person. Pastors preach on self-sacrifice so we take it to this unhealthy extreme.

If you find that this is you, there are some things you can do. Start with getting a better sense of self through spiritual disciplines. Knowing you are a person of sacred worth. A person already worthy of attention and value and love. This is who you are created to be.

Take an inventory of the things you feel resentful for doing and start owning your choices. Do the things you choose not things you think other people expect you to do, or do things that will wow everyone with how noble your sacrifices are.

Learn to say no. Unless, of course, it’s something Pastor Dave asks you to do. (Just kidding.)

The thing about being a martyr is that you play the victim card and never have to take responsibility for your own unhappiness. Learn how to take on that responsibility.

It’s hard to be around a person with a martyr complex. You may feel like you are supposed to feel indebted. That you have to keep thanking them profusely. That you have to walk around on eggshells. Sometimes you can start to change the dynamic if you don’t play into the usual script. Instead of giving them the pity they seek, affirm the person, not the way they went off and tried to do everything themselves. You can say, “Oh I see that you got up and scrubbed the floor. Good job. Next time tell me when you are going to do that and I’ll help.”

There is help and there are ways to break the patterns. But we can first let go of some fantasy that this is something the call to sacrifice is really about. There are many things you can choose to make sacrifices toward. Good things. You need to find them. Scripture says the Lord loves a cheerful giver. Choose things to give yourself to that increase joy and justice rather than a need for validation of your victimhood. Learn to know the difference and unlock the paradox of finding your true self by living for things beyond yourself.






[4] ibid