Okay, I admit it: I don’t know a whole heck of a lot about Lent. I’m a fairly non-liturgical Baptist. And even though I grew up in a Presbyterian church I don’t remember hearing much about Lent. I do know a little, however. I know it begins with Ash Wednesday, a day to reflect on our own mortality. You know, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” All of us are going to die. We should think about that and live a life and find the faith that prepares us for our eventual appointment with death. Lent then proceeds for 40 days (excluding Sundays) until Holy Saturday the day before Easter. Lent is a time to reflect on the sufferings of Jesus and all that He sacrificed for us. It’s somber time, a reflective time, a holy time. And somewhere along the way, this idea of giving up something for Lent was introduced to the church.
So every year I hear some of the things people are giving up for Lent. My experience with such things indicates that most of the giving up tends to be either dietary or media-based. People give up chocolate or sweets or Cokes or booze or fried food. Others give up certain television shows or going to the movies. A few determine to give up something like smoking or cussing or another bad habit that may or may not even be a sin. And it seems like the popular give-up this Lenten season is Facebook. I read some posts from my Facebook friends last Wednesday that said something to the effect of, “If you need to contact me, call or email because I’m giving up Facebook for Lent. I’ll be back on in 40 days.”
This whole thing has always intrigued me. It’s like a 40-day attempt to do something Jesus calls us to do 365 days a year. You remember when He said, “If anyone comes after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). I guess Lent is a way of trying to do the first of these three actions: self-denial. And if it is, it seems to me that folks ought to consider giving up something important enough that they don’t plan on taking it right back up again when the 40 days are past. Shouldn’t self-denial run a bit deeper than that?
Self-denial is one of the most difficult things Jesus calls us to do. It’s not natural. We learn from birth to exalt the self. A baby’s wet or hungry and what does she do? Does she say, “Oh mother, pardon my intrusion. How selfish of me! You get your sleep first, then I’ll get mine.” Is that what a baby does? Yeah, right. The baby’s going to scream her lungs out until somebody tends to her needs.
Or take a toddler. Suppose your toddler wants something. It doesn’t matter what it is—it could be anything—a little attention, some crackers and juice, his sister’s toy, or to get up from his nap too early—anything. And suppose you’re busy. Does the toddler say, “I’m sorry, mother. I didn’t know you were busy. Please take your time in tending to my wants. Finish your phone call. Wait till your program is over. Finish the chapter. I’m really in no hurry.” Is that what toddlers do? No way! They’ll fuss and whine until you either make them quit or give them what they want.
We tend to be self-centered by nature. It shows up in our lives from birth to death. We want what we want when we want it. Age and reality usually tempers our ability to get it, but it doesn’t stop many of us from trying. Look at credit card debt. Look at chronic overeating. Look at all the addictions. Look at the number of divorces caused by self-centeredness. Look at parents who neglect their kids to satisfy their own wants. Even adults have a hard time saying no to themselves. When Jesus calls us to deny self, He is asking us to go against the flow, to cut across the grain of human nature. So we resist.
And our culture doesn’t make it any easier. Put a drop of self-centeredness in the Petri dish of American culture and it will grow like a fungus. American culture does not treat us as persons but as consumers. Thus, ad after ad to whet our appetite for more, people counseling us to go get ours, and all the “I deserve it” and “I’m entitled” mantras that shout to us through a megaphone of selfishness. And as if that’s not enough, even many of today’s churches treat us as consumers too: “Come check out our programs tailored just for you. We're the home of only seven commandments—you choose. Home of the 3% tithe.” It’s tough to say no to oneself. Even the church isn’t always a lot of help. And yet Jesus calls us to do it: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself ….”
I wonder if the key is not just learning to say no to self but yes to Christ. In Matthew 12 Jesus tells a story about a man who swept his life clean from one evil spirit. But because he didn’t fill the void with Christ, seven spirits worse than the first came back and moved right in. See what I mean: denying self is more than saying no to self, it’s saying yes to Christ. And if we can get that in perspective, it might make giving up something for Lent more meaningful than a 40-day change in one’s eating habits or Facebook usage. What if we picked on bigger things? What if we determined to say no to old grudges and yes to offering forgiveness to those who have hurt us? What if we say no to a certain level of media addiction and say yes to filling up that time reading God’s word or a good Christian book or a little time in prayer and reflection? What if we say no to a relationship that is moving us away from Christ and say yes to relationships that draw us toward Him? What if we said no to spending so much on ourselves and said yes to giving more to the things that are close to God’s heart: things like the church or charities that serve the poor and the wounded? No to self doesn’t mean all that much unless we say yes to Christ.
But then again, what do I know about Lent? I’m a Baptist for crying out loud. I’ll be the first to admit that Lent is a bit of foreign ground for me. But at the same time, I do know this: Jesus didn’t just say, “If anyone come after me, let him deny himself for forty days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday.” The full verse says, “If anyone come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” That looks like no to self and yes to Christ to me—a no and a yes that Jesus will give you the strength to accomplish as you lean into Him.
Oh, and one other thing: taking this path might help us make for some significant change that lasts a lot longer than forty measly days.