*NOTE 1: I exempt this commentary from addressing Catholic tradition because, in my experience, Lenten season has greater significance and gravitas for real faithful Catholics, and I respect and appreciate it! I deal with the Protestant (particularly evangelical) experience.
*NOTE 2: This post is inspired by an article from Christianity Today (mentioned below).
Lent for Protestant Christians is a funny thing. We rarely treat it with the same seriousness as Catholics yet we tend to make a pretty big deal about “giving something up” for Lent. Generally speaking, it’s obligatory behavior more than anything else. Usually it’s some inanity like chocolate, sweets in general, TV for more than 4 hours a week, YouTube or Facebook or something else. We exercise self-denial supposedly out of respect and remembrance of the self-denial of Jesus. As Eugene Cho recently posted “Jesus didn’t ask you to give up coffee. He asked you to give up your life.” Now I don’t say this with judgment and vim and vigor, but Cho bears a point. So does giving up coffee/TV etc. have any worth with the weight of the true call to denial?
Let’s NOT use it to teach real self-denial
I think it actually does, but it requires some clarification about what the “self-denial” of mundane things is really FOR. I want to sort out this mis-targeted act. For one, if the thing in question is REALLY a distraction, shouldn’t this level of self-denial be exercised for more than 40 days? I think obviously yes but anyway let me get to the real point. I wonder if Lent (and the “giving up” of something) isn’t a spiritual way for Protestants to “make up” for all kinds of disordered living in general. Instead of dealing with the real issue (lack of regular self-control), they try and overcompensate to “catch up.”
An analogy: People feel guilty about not exercising regularly, so they use a vacation day or weekend to work out EXCESSIVELY (run 8 miles, bench 200 pounds 1000 times and the like). Particularly near summer (read: swimsuit season) they’ll freak out and then hit the gym hard. But then they’re so over-sore from the overexertion that they can’t work out for the next 6 days. By the time the soreness passes, they’re back to making excuses to not work out regularly yet again — “Oh I’m still kind of sore, and I wanna make sure I’m really fully-recovered.” I think Lent is the “oh crap I need to lose weight for swimsuit season” of Protestant Evangelicalism, except when it comes to self-denial to Jesus.
Instead, faithfulness in little things
What is the real problem though? Daily faithfulness in little things; our mundane life is disordered! Obviously we may have big discipleship/denying ourselves issues, but that is often of a different nature or caliber than the little things we face every day. And aren’t we called to be faithful with little before we’re faithful with much? Don’t burn me at the stake for being heterodox though, I know we are called to discipleship and to die here and now. Jesus in His grace however tends to cultivate us in stages. Nobody starts out praying for 4 hours at a time, but we begin with 4 minutes and grow from there. Thus, as far as a reflection/change ritual is concerned, let’s target the real thing here – faithfulness in little things.
Moreover, Jesus’ Himself was the suffering servant in order to bring the Kingdom of Heaven through propitiational sacrifice on the cross. The cross brought us into a tension period where the Kingdom of Heaven was already come and not yet come too, bringing the “end of time” into the “middle of time” as Tim Keller puts it. While the Kingdom of Heaven is built on continual service and sacrifice of Jesus’ disciples, it is about a new vision of life lived in celebration.
Even in the midst of sacrificial living, feasting, celebrating, and joy are still valuable and validated things. The epistles talk about both sacrifice and celebration and so should we. Jesus’ images of the Kingdom of Heaven are of servitude/suffering for us disciples as well as new life, feasting, and joy where people are welcomed into the banqueting table of the King because we HAVE ACCESS to the King and are restored (and yet being restored) to full conformity and relationship with Him.
The inspiration for this post & thoughts about what to do instead:
All this was brought on by reading an article from Christianity Today. Author Devin Brown applies some good C.S. Lewis thinking to the Lenten season. You can read it here: Lent in Narnia: Would C.S. Lewis have renounced Turkish Delight from Ash Wednesday to Easter? Brown discusses Lent and C.S. Lewis’ understanding of consecrated denial as well as celebration.
I felt… comforted (?) by the way Brown accents that in an ideal Christian life, “feasts are as Christian as fasts.” Which is to say, asceticism and abstention has a place! But so too does feasting. I like how Lent is then to be (re)understood as “re-ordering” instead of “renouncing.”
So often, Lent gets reduced to “giving up (coffee, sweets, YouTube, Facebook, whatever [relatively harmless] vice is relevant)” as if this itself is helpful or sufficient in teaching us the real cost of total discipleship and self-denial of Jesus. Without overstating, I think it’s disrespectful at best, and we either need to do away with this “giving up of little things” or to re-understand it as the something else that Devin has outlined and I’ve exposited. I am all for reflecting on real self-discipline, self-denial, and sacrifice, but let’s not glibly call the 40-day abstention from Snickers’ that.
If we do want to continue dealing with mundanities and daily substance as sweets and social networking, the idea of Lent as “reordering” is exactly right. In this fashion, giving up or re-ordering coffee, TV, sweets etc. can help us learn faithfulness in little things. Indeed, as Lewis is quoted in the article: “you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Let’s celebrate Jesus as our first thing and use Lenten “giving things up” to reorder our second things accordingly.
Whatever you do, I hope that Lent is a season that encourages you to immerse yourself more in the life, sacrifice, and already (and yet to) come Kingdom of God, whatever way you choose to do so.
Some appropriate pictures from Google Image Search about Lent…
The typical approach to Lent
The more recent variant of the vice to abstain from.
A better approach to the Lenten self-denial; it's about MANY things and re-ordering life to be more faithful
And if you really want to emphasize self-denial, reflect on this
SIDE NOTE: I’m really tired of pugnacious low-church [I’m not judging them as inferior, I mean this in the term of ecclesiological style] that do silly things like “I’m giving up religion for Lent.” I guess it’s well-intentioned but can’t you make a point about Jesus’ saving grace (not works) without trampling on other Godly Christians’ traditions that are valuable, valid, and generally Biblical? I know we have to meet ex-Catholics or ex-high-church-ers and address whatever negative experiences they have but I can’t help feeling this is mostly contradistiction to create hype, which seems excessively divisive.
This seems silly at best, divisive at worst.