I was raised a Baptist. For almost 29 years, I’ve pastored Baptist churches. And until recent years, I’ve never made mention of Ash Wednesday or the season of Lent. I won’t try to explain it all except that I’m learning from my pastoral colleagues, from other tradtions that it’s a rich time of spiritual reflection. It is a season wherein Christians around the world enter into a great awareness of our need for repentance, faith and seriousness in following Jesus.
But as I’ve observed what really happens at Lent for many Christians is anything but serious. People celebrate “Fat Tuesday,” they get their “ashes” on Wednesday and give something up for Lent. And those sacrifices include TV, Facebook, cussing, or removing some unhealthy treat from their diet.
As I’ve said, I don’t come from a background that holds to Lenten traditions. But I have to believe it was meant to be more than this. As I reflect on Lent and on how our “Christianized” culture treats it, I think we’re in danger of doing real spiritual damage. So, here are 3 things we need to watch for and 3 things that will help us have a more meaningful Lenten season.
3 Warnings For this Lenten season.
1. Our sacrifices won’t absolve us.
Giving something up is no substitute for being honest about our sin. You see, our positive actions can never undo our negative actions. We need forgiveness. Forgiveness comes through repentance and confession.
Trying to perform our way out of sin is like a friend who, after being harsh or criticial, just trying to change without ever saying their sorry for their actions. The offense doesn’t go away without us addressing it.
In God’s economy, only Christ’s sacrifice can remove sin. He alone could do what was good enough. So, giving up Facebook, or Pornography, or even reading your Bible more doesn’t absolve us of our sin. Don’t trust in your good actions to outweigh your sin.
2. Our sacrifices won’t get us any closer to God.
We think that we can earn God’s favor. We tend to think that if we do something for God, he will do something for us. God doesn’t want what we have to offer. He wants us. I’m reminded of this in the story of King Saul. King Saul was commanded to follow God’s direction and he disobeyed. But in order to restore God’s favor, he offered this huge sacrifice. And then he said, “Look, what I did for God!”
Then God, through the prophet Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22).”
God wants us to respond to him as God. He wants a relationship with us. He wants us to hear and listen. No sacrifice can earn God’s favor or blessing.
3. Our temporary self-discipline is a set up for failure.
This season can be a lot like a physical diet. We fear permanent change, so we go on a 40 day spiritual diet. We don’t want a new lifestyle, we just want to get into shape, so we don’t feel so bad about splurging. The problem is we get done with our temporary commitments and then we go back with a vengeance.
In the gospels, there is a warning about spirits. Matthew 12:43-45 reads, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and swell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also, it will be with this evil generation.”
A temporary spiritual fix is not a fix. In fact, it is a set up for greater failure down the road. We need, not just to rid our lives of the things that clutter our lives, we need to fill our lives with the Spirit of God who frees us and keeps us free.
Is Lent a waste then? I don’t think so. Playing at Lent, like playing around at a relationship with Christ can be a waste. But the real thing can have lasting benefit.
3 encouragements for experiencing the benefits of Lent.
1. Our attitude is important.
Lent isn’t observed to make us feel better about ourselves. The “Hey, look what I gave up!” misses the point. This season is a time to exalt Christ, not ourselves. We are identifying with his sacrifice. Humility is key! This act of self-denial is the admission that we’re not “all that.” We need God’s grace in every way. There is no room for pride in that.
Remember the warning of Jesus, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1).” This is not a time to seek attention. But it is a time to humbly live before the God who has loved us and called us.
2. Self-discipline is ongoing.
Self-discipline is the attempt to bring our physical lives under the direction of the Spirit of God. This is a life-long attempt to bring the flesh under the control of the Spirit. It is an admission that all that is in this world is temporary. And we are living for eternity.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:25-26 “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline by body and keep it under control, let after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
3. We need a greater goal.
There may be times when we are led by God to give something up temporarily, but the temporary sacrifice shouldn’t be our goal. We should do it for an ongoing, ever-deepening intimacy with Christ. We should do it for the glory of God. This sounds a lot like the Westminster Catechism which says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Now that’s a greater goal.
Three and a half years ago, I went into the hospital for heart surgery. Since then I have changed my whole approach to health. It was a short term action that led to new life-long patterns. Lent can be the same thing. It is a short stay in spiritual rehab. But it’s real impact comes with what happens afterward.
I pray you have a powerful Lenten season. But more than that, I pray it is just a step in a life of a deepening daily walk with Christ.
What have you experienced through Lent?
What do you hope to experience this year?
I’d especially love to hear from Christians from other traditions!!!!
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