What Is Healthy Sacrificial Love

February 11, 2024

What is Healthy Sacrificial Love?

Loving as a single parent requires us to sacrifice in ways we don’t expect, but sometimes we get caught up in the pain and it becomes tit for tat and turns into a burdensome kind of love. We know we have to step outside of ourselves and elevate what is best for our kids. But how do we do that sacrificially in a healthy way?

This month we’re talking about love, and today we’re discussing sacrificial love. And we’re going to cover this in three main points. Number one, we’re going to talk about the meaning of sacrificial love. And number two, we’re going to talk about what sacrificial love is not. And three, we’re going to talk about when you feel like you have given all you have. We know as parents, we are called to sacrifice for our kids, but what does it mean to have a healthy sacrificial love?

What Is Sacrificial Love?

It’s really about putting the needs of our kids first, which obviously requires compromise and flexibility, empathy, and patience because it’s really hard. So let’s just look at it through that lens alone, and not just towards your kids—I’m even thinking about your ex in this regard. So we split Christmas break typically according to our papers this past year. His dad was supposed to have him from the day they got out of school until Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. And then I got him on Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. and was supposed to have him until he went back to school. So it was about 50/50 for the Christmas break. We’re pretty good about working together and figuring it out. His dad was leaving to go with his girlfriend to her family a couple of days before Christmas. So he was like, “Do you mind taking him a few days early?” I’m like, “Yeah, you don’t even have to ask. Of course.” So that was all fine and so I asked him, “When are you going to go see your parents?” He’s like, “Well, I guess we’ll go the day after Christmas or whatever. So I guess Jax won’t be able to go this year.” And I was like, “Whoa, why?” And he said, “Well, because we’re going during the time he’s with you.” I was like, “No, he can totally go with you to your parents. That has nothing to do with me. He needs to be with his grandparents. I want him to be around his family.”

So of course I’m not going to keep him from doing that. But I don’t know why this is the same thing every year. This is not new. We’ve been divorced for almost six years. Over and over, I’ve said, “Anytime you’re going to see your parents, if it’s on my time, take him. I want him to be with your parents.” He’s not going to have them around forever, so why not build those memories? But another layer was, I wanted to give Jax an experience as his main gift this year, and I wanted to take him snowboarding. Going to his grandparents’ house was going to be during the same time I was going to take him snowboarding.

So it was like, “Alright, well, I’m going to have to give up the snowboarding and figure out something else to give him for Christmas.” And I made it all work and it was fine. But I feel like that was sacrificial because I could have been selfish. I could have said, “No, this is my time. I’m keeping it, and we’re going snowboarding. You need to figure out another time to take him to see your parents.” But I want Jax to have those experiences, and so I’m willing to sacrifice, putting his needs first, setting mine aside, not feeling resentful, just genuinely in my heart wanting what was best for him.

It really is sacrificing short-term ease for long-term benefits because you’re investing, making a decision to invest in his experience rather than your own. To me, sacrificial love is understanding that, whether it’s our kids or a friend or a potential mate, we may not have a clear understanding of what their needs are because we look at it through our lens. Sacrificial love to me is also putting yourself in their spot. I’m not necessarily talking about kids now, I’m talking about friends or relationships where you’re not assuming that everyone looks at things the same way you do. Part of sacrificial love is really trying to go, “Okay, there’s a bigger picture here and I need to try to get inside the head of whoever I am trying to show sacrificial love to.”

And I think too, when we’re talking about healthy sacrificial love, this isn’t constantly pouring everything out for another person. With our kids, it’s a temptation to just give everything away to them on a day-to-day basis because they’re needy. There has to be a healthy balance where you offer unconditional love and support, but you know some of your own limits, and it’s not always ongoing.

On the flip side of that, I didn’t do this, I would hold my ex to the letter of the law, and I can see now how it created that dynamic because my girls would see it. They would see me go, “Nope, you can’t have another half hour.” We’ve got to realize that sacrificial love is active and it’s passive. It could be something that you do for somebody else sacrificially, like go pick up food for them if they’re sick or just putting yourself out for them. It’s also passive where it can be biting your tongue and not saying something that you are entitled to say, but you choose not to. As far as owning my whole story from last week, I was not good at this. I want to normalize that. Default for most of us is to jump to defense and we don’t always get it right.

There have been times where he and I have been mad at each other, and it’s like I just want to stick it to him. But I also saw that play out 100% in his first marriage with his two oldest kids, and it was horrible. And those two kids just really took the brunt of it. Even today there’s so much pain and they’re still in the middle of things between their parents and I just have to sit back and watch it and it’s awful. And so that’s really my motivation because I’ve witnessed it firsthand, and I’ve seen the effects of it. Now that Jax’s siblings are 25 and 18 and they both have very different outcomes in terms of how they react to it. But there is so much pain there, and I’m like, “I can’t do that to my child, so I’m going to figure this out.”

What is NOT Sacrificial Love?

I want to talk about what sacrificial love is not because this climbs into some other areas. It can get so tricky because whether it’s culture or our upbringing or Christianism, sometimes we can be taught that serving and giving ourselves away and putting ourselves last is this beautiful, healthy expression of love. And that’s not always the case. And it’s especially not the case if you’re crossing your own personal boundaries to do so, where inside of yourself it creates a place of resentment or anger, and you’ve taken on a burden that wasn’t yours to carry in the first place, and it does someone else a disservice or it causes harm to you. We aren’t called to harm ourselves in caring for someone else. God’s love wants us to care for us too. It can be misunderstood when we say we’re not always called to sacrifice, and yet the Bible teaches what Christ represented is 100 percent sacrifice when we did not deserve it at his own peril. So how you draw those lines, to me, is if it’s costing you yourself and your health or your wellbeing, if you don’t have that love for yourself, then it’s not sacrificial love because you don’t actually have the love to give. You have an empty tank, so you are performing. It’s not getting rid of the Christian principles of “Don’t sacrifice.” It’s actually determining there’s performance sacrifice and then there’s actually sacrificial love from abundance or overflow.

Well, I think one question you can ask yourself too is: What’s your motivation behind doing it? Do I expect to be repaid for that? Do I expect to get more time on some other week to make up for it? Do I expect him to do the same for me? I’ve learned long ago, that’s never going to happen. So, I know that that’s not why I do it. I’m not expecting anything in return. I have no benefit for myself whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I’m sacrificing my time with my child that I only get 50% of anyway, and I try to protect it with everything that I have, but I don’t expect anything in return. There’s no motivation for, “Oh, well if I do this then he’s going to repay me.” It’s about being really honest with yourself, if there’s any expectation tied to it whatsoever, it’s not true sacrifice.

It’s when you’re wanting to give from a place of overflow and abundance in a way that is genuinely helpful and beneficial to the other person. Sometimes we can call it sacrificial love and it may be feeding pride or ego—I need to look like the bigger, better person—and that’s not healthy sacrificial love. It might look good on the outside. The difference between what self-sacrificial love is and what’s not is so nuanced. You can’t measure it from outside. It really is a matter of motivation and heart.

Yeah, and I think one of the things we can look at just kind of as a warning sign or a signal that we may be going into an unhealthy type of sacrificial love is if we notice that we’ve attached an emotional debt to it where they owe us something now, there’s going to be resentment building up or bitterness: “I’m always the giver here.” If that starts to spark in you, that could be a sign that you’re drifting from genuine, unconditional, I want to do this. I’m giving from a cheerful heart to you’re setting up yourself or the other person for emotional debt. They now owe you something.

Early on after our divorce, I was the person that was holding emotional debt. I would have resentment towards not being paid back for all the good I was doing. Now I know what to expect on the other side, and I know there is no give and take. My motivation is very different, and it is my child and his heart, and that’s all that matters to me.

What do you do when you have exhausted yourself? You have just given and given and given, and have nothing else to give?

Honestly, if you’re there, I would say go back to step two and look at these things. Have you been crossing personal boundaries? Have you been giving out of an empty cup? And look at the heart behind what you’re doing. If you’ve gotten to a point where you feel like you’ve given everything you have, there’s something that you’re holding onto, whether it’s unforgiveness, whether it’s that bitterness and resentment. Look at the motivation and the heart behind why you’re giving sacrificially in a really true, honest way. I think that that has to be step one because I don’t know why you would feel so drained otherwise.

I’m thinking about earlier this month when we talked about self-love and how if we are not caring well for ourselves, we do not have the extra to offer to someone else. I think about all the times I’ve been incredibly drained, exhausted, frustrated, sad, and responded, “Are you kidding me? No, I can’t read you a second story tonight. I’m about to lose my mind.” Those ugly feelings. When I start to feel all that yuckiness, I have to question, “Where have I been giving myself away too much or where haven’t I been giving to myself enough? Where have I not said no? Where have I not taken a nap when I needed to? When did I meet with a friend or talk with God or go for a long walk or celebrate the beauty of a sunset?” The things that fill me up have usually gone missing when my tank is dead empty and that’s when I will start to notice those feelings coming up.

I have felt completely depleted before, and it doesn’t just stop when you’re not a single parent anymore. We all get to places in life where we just feel completely depleted. I think it really requires humility and asking for help, whether that be from others or whether that be God. We are not meant to do all of this on our own. And if we are not tending to ourselves, whatever that means for me, taking care of myself or filling up my tank so to speak, is going to look different than either one of you. But it’s important to know what that is. How do you fill up your tank and when you feel like you’ve given everything? Don’t be afraid to ask for help or say, “Hey, I can’t build an eight-foot snowman. I can’t right now, but I can do this.” But asking and reaching out for community or God. There were so many times that I just was depleted, laying on the floor in that depleted state and saying, “I don’t even know what to ask for. I don’t have anything.” And every single time, God met me there. I didn’t just spring up and go, “I’m going to go be a ninja now.” It was just more I had the sustenance to take another step.

It’s important to ask yourself, “What do I need? What do I need right now?” That’s a habit I’ve gotten myself into. And it may be that I need something from someone else, or it may be that I need something from God. Also bring somebody else in and get some wisdom from a trusted friend. Ask them, give them the scenario and say, “What do you think?” And humility, ask them, “What do you think I should do here? What would be the best for my kids?” Sometimes you need to hear it from someone else because that ego part of you, or the hurt and the resentment, can be so much bigger than the truth that you know is there. And what would be best for your kids.

1. Sacrificial love puts aside short-term comfort for long-term benefit, whether it be with our kids or in a relationship.
2. Sacrificial love is not self-sacrificing your own needs or wellbeing. Healthy sacrificial love requires that you have your tank full.
3. When you feel like you’ve given everything you have, it’s okay to ask for help, whether it be from God or from others,

Listener Question
I have a teenage daughter and son. I want to spend time with them, but I don’t want to force it. How would you navigate this?
When my kids were teens, I would absolutely prioritize what they wanted to do. I wouldn’t try to pull them over into my world or things that I thought might be fun, but I would listen carefully and still do. When they would want to spend time with me, as often as I could, I would try to join them in whatever they thought was fun. My son loves for me to pick him up and we go get coffee and talk about his programming computer stuff and things that aren’t my favorite hot topics, but I prioritize what’s important to him. And even the snowman is a classic example. I didn’t feel like it, but they were seeking time with me. Having the margin, ability, and flexibility to adapt and meet them in their world is key. I have built more flexibility into my schedule as my kids have gotten older so that I can be responsive when available.

It aligns with this topic today of sacrificial love. As our kids get older, they start to try on new things whether it be video games or whatever. Go with them into their world. Don’t expect them to come to your world. You don’t set the tone anymore for the baseline conversation. Just be willing to spend time with them exploring. With my first daughter, I did a terrible job at this. I was like, “Okay, let’s talk. What’s going on?” With my youngest, I learned some lessons and I would ask some questions, but I would just choose to spend time together. I have a good relationship with both of them, but by far, the more efficient way to a good relationship is by not enforcing the circumstance more. Just show up and be fully present.

I looked over at my son and I said, “Hey, what’s going on? Are you all right?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m just really tired.” And I could see in his eyes it was more than that. Does that still work when they’re teenagers, where you can read their face and know there’s something more going on? From my experience, you can read the cues, but you can’t necessarily step in the gap. Dan Allender talks about, “I wonder what’s going on.” Getting curious, but not going, “What’s going on?” Just showing your kind of curiosity with it and then being willing to let it go. I would just say, “Well, listen, it seems to me like something else is going on, and I’m totally fine if I’m not the one you want to talk about it. But just know that if you ever do, no judgment. I’ll just listen.”

We build that ability to notice by our presence, by prioritizing what our kids need. We open the pathway for that when they’re young. By the time they’re 16, it can be a hard reality that we might’ve missed some of those windows and opportunities, and you’re not alone if you’re there. I have some of that in my story. But if you’re not a parent of a teen, you have the opportunity now to create the space where later on they will say, “Hey, let’s go do this fun thing.” Or “Man, no, this is actually what’s happening for me.”

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