The Bible says obedience is better that sacrifice, but I feel like obedience is sacrifice and I'm confused how to distinguish between the two. Is quitting smoking obedience or sacrifice? Which is helping my neighbor? And so forth.
The passage that says “obedience is better than sacrifice” is found in 1 Samuel 15:22. King Saul had failed to wait for Samuel in order to make an offering to God. Instead, he made the sacrifice, although he did not have that right since he wasn’t a priest. When Samuel confronted him, he said “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” He was clearly talking about animal sacrifices. What he was saying was that God wants us to obey him more than he wants mere religious observance. Since there are no more animal sacrifices today, he might as easily say that obedience is more important to God than just sitting in an assembly of the church. Going to church is worthless unless the heart is in it.
Sacrifice, in the Bible, is not just giving up something you would rather keep. In this context, it merely means any offering to God. That offering may be difficult or easy to give. In one sense, sacrifice is obedience, although obedience is not necessarily sacrifice. In the sense of this passage, Saul was actually disobedient in giving a sacrifice.
Our word “sacrifice” comes from the Latin for “that which makes holy.” That is what Jesus did with the sacrifice, or offering, he made for sin. “but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26) The writer here says that Jesus made one last sacrifice for sin, a better offering than those under the Law of Moses. In this sense, nothing we do is a sacrifice because that would be saying that Jesus did not need to die. But we still need to obey.
Is quitting smoking obedience or sacrifice? Perhaps it is obedience. Although there is no direct scripture that would condemn smoking, it is damaging to the body that God gave us. It is therefore disrespectful to God, and quitting could be considered obedience. Helping a neighbor is obedience, because it is not directly an offering to God to make one holy. Only Jesus made that offering.
While all these things may be sacrifice, in the modern sense of having to give something up that you would rather keep, they are not sacrifice in the biblical sense. Nothing that we do in this life will earn us salvation, which is the purpose of sacrifice.