Lent isn't a mandate from God. It's a completely human creation. With the other seasons and days of the Church Year, Lent is, in essence, a means of teaching Christians and those seeking to understand Christianity what it means to believe in and follow Jesus Christ.
Many people use Lent to align themselves with Christ. They do this through the adoption of what are called spiritual disciplines.
Lenten disciplines can be good, strengthening faith and helping people to love God and love others more faithfully. But like many good things, we human beings have had a way of messing up the whole idea of Lenten disciplines. "I'm going to give up chocolate," some will announce. "I'm not drinking beer during Lent," others might say. "I've decided to give up cussing until Easter," I've heard people proudly announce.
But, here's the deal: If something is getting in the way of our being Christians, isn't it also worth asking God to help us get rid of it, not just during Lent, but through our whole lives?
That includes things that aren't intrinsically sinful, but which we realize, keep us from living as followers of Jesus. For example, a learned friend of mine has, since the beginning of the year, been on a "book fast." He isn't buying any books, new or old, unless he needs them for his work. That's because he feels that his love for books, learning, and bragging rights of knowing something can sometimes block out God's priorities for his life. He wants to honor God, not feed his ego.
Are books bad? Of course not. But as Paul writes in Romans 14:12: "...whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." My friend understands that.
If you're giving up chocolate just to lose weight, or giving up beer to please a spouse, or giving up cussing to make yourself more acceptable to some people, your "giving up" is really meaningless from God's perspective. You're not undertaking these disciplines to honor God, but as part of a self-help kick.
And if your "discipline" is about trying to prove your "will power," forget it! A will that isn't bent to the will of God may make you feel like you've got something to brag about. But God isn't impressed!
But if your intent is to grow closer to Christ through your discipline, it can be a very good thing.
The Ash Wednesday liturgy we use in my tradition mentions four disciplines most closely associated with Lent. There are many more, of course. But if you've never observed a Lenten discipline, these four might be ones you'll want to consider in 2013. But undertake them not with the attitude that, "I'll give them up after Lent." Use Lent as a time to integrate these disciplines into your life, for keeps.
1. Repentance. Repentance gets a bad rap. It's portrayed as a grim obligation in which we make ourselves miserable for our sin.
Sorrow for sin is part of authentic repentance, but the main words used in the Bible for repent tell a fuller story.
- The usual Old Testament word literally means to turn around, to change directions. When we acknowledge our sins, we turn away from our sins, which are thoughts, words, and actions that find us walking away from God, and turn back to God and relationship with Him.
- The word usually used for repentance in the New Testament means to change one's mind. In repentance, we submit to God in order, in the words of an old Bob Dylan song, "change our way of thinking."
(1) confessing our sins to GodPaul had both elements of repentance in mind when he encouraged believers to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:4). That means humble submission to the crucifixion of our old selves so that our new selves, recreated in the image of Jesus, can rise to life with God.
(2) receiving forgiveness and the power for new living that belongs to those who follow Christ.
Repentance is a painful thing because in it we confess our sins, imperfections, and need of God.
But repentance is a joyful thing because it allows us to receive the reconciliation and new with God which Christ's death and resurrection make possible.
This is why when Martin Luther spoke of repentance, he talked about "repentance and renewal."
2. Fasting. We've already touched on this. Fasting can mean giving up those things that get in the way of our following Christ or living life God's way.
It may also mean doing without some things--food, hours on the computer or watching TV, going to sporting events, window shopping at the mall (a vice of mine which I used to indulge a lot)--that might keep us from prayer, worship, reading Scripture, attending to our primary relationships, or serving others.
This is why I always suggest replacing the thing from which you're fasting with a positive, God-honoring activity. If you've decided, for example, to give up watching television one night a week, you'll be able to follow through on your discipline and imbue it with some meaning beyond being a forty-day stunt of your will by, for example, scheduling to volunteer at a food bank on your fasting night.
3. Prayer. Prayer is conversation with God (see here). Of course, believers should always "pray without ceasing." But focused times of prayer, at set times each day, become special appointments with God, deepening our faith, giving our lives both peace and direction.
One point about these special prayer times I would make is to be certain that you always begin your prayers by reading a chapter from the Bible or a devotion based on a passage of Scripture. Since prayer is conversation with God, it's good to let God get in the first word. Otherwise, our prayers can devolve into a monologue about our wants and our feelings.
If you're wondering what to say when it's time for you to pray, the so-called ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) I first read about in a book by Bill Hybels and which I explain here is a good way to start.
And you can never go wrong with the Lord's Prayer, using its profound and exhaustive petitions as a skeletal framework for your conversation with God. (See here for Martin Luther's explanation of the Lord's Prayer found in The Small Catechism.)
4. Works of love. Jesus says that whenever we have cared for those the world regards as "the least of these...you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40).
Caring for and serving others in Christ's Name is one way we can fulfill both the great commission of making disciples, because people who experience the love of Christ we share through our deeds of kindness will want to follow Jesus, too AND the great commandment that we love God completely and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
One work of love we may undertake is reaching out to a family member who has been ostracized from the family.
Or, volunteering at a homeless shelter or a food bank.
It could mean participating in a kindness outreach.
Whatever the work of love turns out to be, if it's done in the Name of Jesus, you'll find that what started out as something you thought you were doing to benefit others will, miraculously, benefit you, freeing your from your slavery to yourself, turning you out to the wider world. Forgetting ourselves through Christ has the byproduct of filling us with more joy and life than we could possibly derive from spending time worshiping at the altar of me. This miraculous transformation probably shouldn't surprise us because Jesus says, "Those who find their life will lose it, and lose their life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).
Now, if I've come across as some "expert" in all this, let me close by saying that I am a sinner in daily need of Christ's forgiveness and help to live as the truly human being I was created by God to be. If you share this trait with me, you might consider adopting a Lenten discipline this year. It could change your life.
[This was originally intended to be my presentation for the Saint Matthew Lutheran Church women's group tomorrow. But because the meeting has been canceled and presenting it at the March meeting would find us three months into Lent, here it is.]