Reading A Course in Miracles: Atonement Without Sacrifice

Sacrifice is so central to Christianity that the first few times I read this section – or encountered the idea in A Course in Miracles – I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. Perhaps I was inured to the notion of sacrifice. Perhaps I was holding onto some thread of hope that it still might pan out for me.

Yet as I continue to study and apply the principles of A Course in Miracles, the more I realize that I cannot have God both ways – the grim and arbitrary judge I made out of my Catholic upbringing (is it any wonder I like the Puritanical Jonathan Edwards so much?) and the abstract Love that is the course’s rendering of God. And so I have had to look more closely at sacrifice, trying to understand better what it is, what my current beliefs about it are, and how they are impeding salvation.

If you’re a traditional Christian, sacrifice works something like this: God sacrificed Jesus to atone for your sins. Jesus went along with this sacrifice willingly. And a whole host of martyrs and saints have sacrificed their lives since. Giving something up – the more precious the better (like your life, say) – becomes a sort of hallmark of Christianity.

I know that I felt guilty at an early age for feeling uncomfortable praying on my knees. I didn’t like giving up meat on Fridays. My sisters and I gave up candy for Lent which was – even for a kid who didn’t eat that much candy – insane. My Protestant buddies had my back – they fed me m&m’s in school. I at them – but I couldn’t sleep at night for the guilt. Clearly the road to hell was paved with candy-coated chocolate.

I still have issues related to this – I struggle a lot with money, for example. How much can I earn – what kind of work am I doing to earn it. What it means to be like Jesus. I am always aware of people who have “less” than me – less food, less free time, less safety.

So when Jesus says bluntly in this section of ACIM that sacrifice is totally foreign to God, there is a part of me that thinks, “who let this joker into the chapel?”

A couple of points. First, the course is never really concerned about our external lives. The notion that somebody is poor and somebody is rich is straight up duality. When that’s what we’re seeing – rich/poor, happy/sad, tall/short, etc. – then it’s time to check back in with Jesus and ask for some help in removing the blocks that impede our vision. In other words, my issues with money – while real enough to me (I made them, remember) and thus fertile ground for forgiveness – are quite beside the point when it comes to salvation. A friend pointed out that real awakening means you have a million dollars today and zero dollars tomorrow and it doesn’t matter. Your joy and peace is entirely unaffected.

I’m not there, but it’s a point well taken.

Second, Jesus is really talking about what a theologian might call ontological fear here – a fear that is deeply connected to our very sense of being or existence. He is not really talking about giving up chocolate fudge for Lent or leaping into lion dens or skipping yoga class because everybody there makes six figures a year. He is telling us that our fundamental understanding of who and what we are is deeply, tragically broken. We think that we’re posed in opposition to a murderous God when we are truly part of a magnificent Love that far exceeds the puny reach of our human imagination. It must be heart-breaking to see.

So we have to look at this issue – our fear of sacrifice – and we have to be willing to have it healed. It doesn’t matter how high the odds against healing seem. That is why Jesus keeps raising it, even this early in the text. It’s incredibly important. Sooner or later, all students reach a point where the external world – for all its glitter and gore – suddenly ceases to matter they way it did. In that moment, we are left facing what seems like an invisible tidal wave of fear that is poised to pound us into dust, to erase us entirely from the book of names, make it so we’re not even a memory in the mind of God.

Jesus is begging us – literally I think – to take his hand and face this grim wave with him. But we resist – we all do, all the time. We will do anything to avoid facing this wave because it is death, it is the end. Who cares who’s got our back? We’re not stupid. We know what’s really going on here.

In the end, the real sacrifice is the self – that’s what we really really don’t want to give up. That’s what we’re determined to take with us even unto the grave, clutching it – whatever it is – in our cold dead fingers. Me! Me! Me! We’re special, unique, important. We can’t die. We can’t be over.

But what the course teaches us is that this wave is not going to kill us. Or rather, it is going to wipe away the little “i” that we have settled for as fugitives from Heaven, but it’s okay because the real “I” is then going to be lifted back into Heaven, back into its rightful place as a pulsing part of the great Love we call God. In time we’ll know that what we think we’re giving up is actually nothing and what we’re gaining in return is everything.

And that’s not a sacrifice – it’s a blessing.

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