There is an interesting “intersection” between something secondary during Lent and something else that is central to the Gospel itself.
The secondary thing is the popular question “What are you giving up for Lent?”
Let’s start with the big stuff
It’s sort of surprising how much leeway God gives me in the matter of whether I choose him as my friend or not. I get to choose, and since he is my master and creator and owner, that’s actually pretty surprising. God does not overwhelm me with displays of his power or his love, nor does he overrule me if I make the decision to live without him.
But God doesn’t leave me to just stumble around in the dark, either. There are all sorts of things he uses to draw me to him. My conscience is one. My innate need to worship and its counterpart need for beauty. That story about Jesus that the world just cannot quite get out of its mind. The Church, which stands constantly as witness to the truth and power and love of God. These and many more draw me to God.
So when Jesus says I have to deny myself in order to follow him, it is the context of this choice he allows me to make. What he means is that I cannot remain full of my own desires and my own motives and goals and yet somehow believe I will still be able to follow him. He means I cannot be so full of me that there is no room for him. If I follow Jesus, he is going to take up a lot of room in me and I will have to get out of his way.
This is not because Jesus is some kind of a control freak or an egomaniac. It’s because that’s just how things work when a small creature like me chooses to surrender to the overwhelming Creator of everything there is. I must make room for him.
Here’s part of how St. Paul describes the process of getting out of Jesus’ way
St. Paul wrote this toward the end of his life.
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:7-11
St. Paul had been prominent and even powerful in his corner of the world before he became a Christian. All of that had to be given up after he followed Jesus – in fact, there was an amazing amount of physical suffering (beatings and imprisonments and betrayals and the like), plus mental suffering after he became a Christian. And Paul says that is ok with him. If you read the whole book of Philippians (go ahead and do that – it’s a great read), it turns out St. Paul is happy to suffer for Jesus and give up “whatever it takes” for him.
The Philippians passage shows two reasons for St. Paul’s willingness to do without for the sake of Jesus.
First, he wants to know Jesus and giving up stuff is part of that process for him. St. Paul made a lot of powerful enemies when he became a Christian, so of course that has a price. Having powerful enemies usually costs quite a bit. Other things that he gave up had to do with his old religion, a religion that had been perfected and fulfilled in Jesus. So he had to give up that old religion, too. Here’s the point – he absolutely could not have held onto old friends and old religion and at the same time been able to know Jesus. He had to give these things up and he was glad to. Jesus is worth it.
Second, there’s a huge payoff for St. Paul in giving stuff up. He says he accepts the loss of all things. And he says that in return he receives the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ, plus he will be resurrected from the dead. That’s huge! You think Warren Buffett gets a nice return on investment? He gets nothing compared to what Paul and every Christian gets.
So the bottom line is that St. Paul does not give up things just to be giving them up. Giving up things is part of the process of coming to Jesus and staying with him. What St. Paul calls “the loss of all things” is pretty much what Jesus calls “denying self”. The giving up – the denying of self – is done in order to obtain something even better.
So what does this have to do with giving up something for Lent?
If you received ashes last Wednesday, there are two things the minister may have said to you. One of them is “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” So the big thing about giving up something for Lent has to do with sin. If you are still refusing to repent of some sin, if you are willfully engaging in some sin, then by all means repent. Give up that sin. The stakes are high. This is a huge part of the self-denial Jesus talks about. It is even the way that St. Mark opens his Gospel.
After John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”
In addition to repenting from sin, the Church also encourages what could be called ritual renunciation, the giving up of small things during Lent. These do have a connection with the self-denial that Jesus says is required of every one of his disciples and the “loss of all things” that St. Paul speaks of in his own life. These ritual renunciations can enrich our lives and draw us closer to God. Even though we all make jokes about giving up our boss for Lent or something like that, we ought to be thoughtful about engaging in ritual renunciations.
- Given the crowded nature of our schedules these days, consider giving up something that will free up some time – then give that time to God and the Church in prayer or Christian service.
- The Church has always encouraged what are sometimes called mortifications, physical disciplines on the body that constitute a form of exercise of our will over our flesh. The most obvious example is fasting, but there are others. St. Paul mentions in I Corinthians 7 that a married couple might refrain from sex for a period of time in order to devote themselves to prayer. I hear of folks who temporarily give up television or some favorite pastime in order to devote themselves to some Christian service or study.
- The thing I give up will cause me discomfort. (Duh.) And that discomfort can itself be offered to God as a sort of prayer, a plea that God will use my discomfort in whatever way may please him to unite me more closely to Jesus. Or unite me more closely to people all over the world who suffer in a similar way, but whose suffering is forced on them, rather than just voluntary like mine.
- So in a particular way, I can offer my discomfort, my small sacrifice in Lent, to God and ask him to unite that discomfort to the suffering of Jesus and the world, and thus draw me closer to him in love.
- This is not masochism, nor is it superstition, nor is it some tactic to force God to give me a special favor. It is simply the response of one person to another (me to God) saying I want to become even closer to you. I want to grow in love and devotion. I want you to be not merely the center of my life, but the whole of my life, and I offer you this small sacrifice of time and comfort in Lent hoping to be united more closely to you in eternity.
- These voluntary deprivations may, if it pleases God, be part of schooling for real and deep suffering later in life.
- We hope to use the things of this world to learn to love the things of heaven.
Use Lent to make some extra room for God.
Offer God your sacrifice in union with Jesus and with those who suffer involuntarily.
It will help you to celebrate Easter with joy.