Friday, February 19, 2010

A Reformed Evanjellybean Reconsiders Lent

Just had this article published over at Ezine:

As I type these words, the liturgical season of Lent is two days away. Traditionally, this 40-day prelude to Easter Sunday served as a period of intense prayer and fasting for converts to the Christian faith. Over the centuries, both the Byzantine and Roman Churches formalized liturgical calendars, adding ecclesiastical rules and traditions - including mandatory fasting, ritualized worship, and alms-giving.

It should be noted, however, that gloominess and deprivation has never been the true focus of Lent - repentance, growing in holiness, and an appreciation of grace have always been central themes. An Orthodox Vespers hymn proclaims, "Let us begin the Lenten time with delight... let us fast from passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the is the acceptable time; behold, now is the time of repentance."

The Romans 14 Argument

Of course, the Reformed or Baptist rebuttal to such a practice is that, biblically, we are called to live that way all the time. Throughout the entire Bible, we are exhorted to live lives worthy of the calling we have received (Ephesians 4:1), be alert and self-controlled (1 Thessalonians 5:6), and to walk in continual repentance ("keep short accounts with God', as my pastor would say). We are to practice self-control and the other fruits of the Spirit all year long, and not just for the six weeks between Mardi Gras and Easter. In no other church will you find the emphasis placed on daily Scripture reading and private devotional prayer (the ubiquitous "quiet time") that we Evangelicals do. In fact, many non-liturgical churches do not hold Good Friday services - the meaning of the Cross is a daily reality in the life of the believer. Furthermore, is not every day considered alike (Romans 14:5)? Therefore, the spirit behind Lent (repentance; reflection on the Cross; spiritual discipline) is one that we should continually live out.

In addition, doesn't mandating spiritual practices negate the whole purpose behind them? Isn't this what the Pharisees were doing? If you force someone to fast or abstain from meat by telling them they are in sin if they "break the rules", haven't you just put them under another type of bondage? Besides, we are free of all dietary restrictions under the New Covenant. And, we Protestants might argue, the personal repentance and corporate solemnity is something we practice each time we observe the Lord's Supper, which is often reduced to an empty ritual in more liturgical settings. We don't need to set just 40 days per year aside in order to "act holy".

In theory, of course, this is true. Notwithstanding these arguments, there is an uncomfortable truth besetting much of modern American Evangelicalism: what used to be known as "discipline" is now derisively termed "legalism".

Christian Liberty is Not a License to Sin, so....

Paul Washer, among others, has discussed our general spiritual laziness at length. As the demographic group that legitimized the wearing of flip-flops to church, we Evangelicals collectively miss the "reverence" mark. In general, so much emphasis has been put on grace over the past two generations that little is spoken about sanctification in the modern Church. In the early 20th century, Deitrich Bonhoffer coined the term "cheap grace" to describe the apathetic lack of conviction among the "how-much-can-I-get-away-with-and-still-get-into-heaven" crowd. Many of us truly desire to live for Christ, and while we may be quite sweet, there's no denying that we've gotten soft. Hence the term "Evan-jellybean" - and no; I did not make that up.

To put it bluntly, we Evangelicals (even of the more Reformed variety) are not notoriously good at self-discipline, perhaps because we've had verses like Romans 14:17, Ephesians 2:8-9 and Galatians 5:1a drummed into us ever since we first walked the aisle in an alter call. But we tend to downplay the second half of verses like the one just cited: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1; emphasis mine). Repeatedly, Paul states that the believer is not to be "mastered" by anything, but is to live a life of self-control. This is a theme that comes up again and again when counseling Christians struggling with addictions.

Produce Fruit in Keeping With Repentance - Matt. 3:8 (...and self-control is a fruit of the Spirit)

So what does this have to do with Lent? For starters, we humans are creatures of habit. Developing, or "putting on" God-honoring practices is something that we develop by repetitive, deliberate practice (Ephesians 4:22). It makes sense to pursue a deeper relationship with Christ (which presupposes obedience to Him) both individually and corporately with the rest of the Body (Hebrews 10:24-25). I assume that Lenten observances took hold partly because, in the early European Church, most Christians were illiterate and therefore small group Bible studies were out of the question. Believers who had limited access to the logos, the Word of God, did not have much to go on in terms of 'personal conviction' (another of our favorite terms). Necessity probably dictated a standardized, corporate means of practicing the spiritual disciplines. (Subsistence agriculture may have also played a practical role). While the ordinance of Lent is not biblical, the principle certainly is.

Making it Personal....

Okay, I have the 5 Solas down and I dig Spurgeon. So why would a dyed-in-the-wool, Calvinist-leaning Baptist like myself be considering the potential spiritual benefits of Lent this year? To answer that question, let me quote the (very Reformed) Jerry Bridges in "Respectable Sins":

"What is self-control? It is a governance or prudent control of one's desires, cravings, impulses, emotions, and passions. It is saying no when we should say no. It is moderation in legitimate desires and activities, and absolute restraint in areas that are clearly sinful.....Biblical self-control is not a product of one's own natural will-power. Biblical self-control...covers every area of life and requires an unceasing conflict with the passions of the flesh that wage war against our souls (see 1 Peter 2:11). This self-control is dependent on the influence and enablement of the Holy Spirit. It requires continual exposure of our minds to the words of God and continual prayer for the Holy Spirit to give us both the desire and power to exercise self-control."

Discipline in Time Management

Bridges touches above on two disciplines that are necessary to cultivate self-control: prayer and Bible reading. These are usually, to some degree, disciplines lacking in the Christian's life (including mine). Developing a commitment to one's devotional life obviously need not happen during Lent. However, reflection and prayer is the whole purpose behind the tradition, so the discipline of time management seems a logical area to surrender to God during this period. If you have gotten lax in your prayer life, you will regress spiritually. There are only two possible directions in the Christian life: forward, or backward. Especially if you are involved in ministry, all the activity has to flow out of your private life before the Throne.

Being undisciplined with my time has a direct impact on my spiritual life. When I am not at work or involved in the immediate needs of childcare, I am much more likely to write, read Christian blogs, listen to podcasts or even just hang out on Facebook than I am to read the Bible these days. I'm not proud of that, but it's true. Add ministry and an upcoming certificate course in biblical counseling into the mix, and without a dynamic prayer life I will be dead in the water (not to mention wide open for spiritual attack). Squeezing intermittent prayer in around frenzied activity will leave anyone defeated and sucked dry. If there's a season tailor-made for repentance and discipline, why not take advantage of it? I am planning to get back into a daily schedule of study, prayer, and limit "screen sucking" time in favor of more productive endeavors - such as keeping the house clean!

Mastering our Appetites

Elsewhere in the chapter, Bridges shows how a lack of discipline in one area of life weakens resolve in others (he uses the example of constantly indulging his craving for ice cream), and so ultimately all areas in which we have a weakness are spiritual issues. He writes:

"I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip on those who enjoy ice cream or soda pop, or even those who go to Starbucks every day for their favorite coffee drink. What I am addressing is our lack of self-control - a tendency to indulge our desires so that they control us, instead of our controlling those desires."

Years ago, I listened to a very articulate and godly Orthodox priest explain to his congregation one of the purposes of Lent in this area. Although I certainly would have some theological differences with him, he did make a good point: we modern people have become so accustomed to excess in all things, that gluttony has become the norm. He was not speaking exclusively about our eating habits, although that is certainly a big part of our "consumerist culture". If we think this over-indulgence doesn't affect our spiritual lives, we are kidding ourselves. Lent is a period where we can voluntarily strip away that excess, and cling to what is truly life-sustaining. The rigidity of the fast (a practice upheld in Scripture - see John Piper's "A Hunger for God" for a discussion of fasting), is symbolic of the believer's absolute dependence and yearning for God and His will.

I was reminded of that sermon yesterday, after a weekend of indulgence....a restaurant meal to celebrate a birthday, followed by pizza and cake at my daughter's "real" party; the requisite chocolate of Valentine's Day, capped off by copious leftovers from the church missions bake sale....while thousands starve in Haiti. Eating is, of course, morally neutral - but how much overeating is permissible before a lack of self-control becomes evident? As one who counsels eating disordered women (and a former bulimic myself), I realize this is a sensitive topic, and I wish to tread carefully. Jack Hughes states in his excellent 5-part series, "When Eating Becomes Sin":

"Nevertheless, because the Bible addresses eating, indulgence, self control, self discipline, gluttony, and other related sins, we need to be able to address this topic without fearing men."

Most of us, if we are honest, could use a bit of restraint in our eating habits - if only for the sake of becoming more self-controlled and disciplined people "not enslaved by all kinds of lusts and pleasures" (Titus 3:3). While self-denial for its own sake is not the purpose of Lent, Jesus' comments in Matthew 6 make it evident that fasting is a normative part of the Christian life. Lent just brings it into the collective consciousness, and what is a private discipline may be done corporately - or individually. The most important thing to remember about fasting, no matter how one chooses to fast, is that the heart attitude is what's most important. Fasting without praying is simply dieting. There is no inherent merit in forgoing food, and the purpose is never to see how long you can actually go without eating. Fasting means seeking a deeper repentance and stronger fellowship with your Savior that takes precedence over food or other activities (see John 4:34). It is not a mark of uber-spirituality.

The weeks before Resurrection Sunday can be whatever one makes of them - a journey of growth and reflection; increased adoration and appreciation of Christ's redeeming love; and a specific season to pray more regularly and practice the other spiritual disciplines. For some, it will inevitably mean a list of "do's and don'ts"; rule upon rule, an arbitrary month-plus of waiting until the Marshmallow Peeps come out in the stores and they can eat chocolate again without the slightest twinge of guilt. Observing Lent is not mandatory, but it's as good a time as any to get back to the basics in our walk with the Lord.

Personally, this Evanjellybean wants to be able to say with Paul, "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,"(1 Corinthians 2:2), and to that end I intend to turn away from apathy and get back into the habit of pursuing God with a I did in my early years as a Christian. Nope, I won't morph into a vegan this month, and since I don't drink or watch TV, the cliché things to "give up" are no longer options. Instead, I plan to spend more time with God, and cultivate greater discipline in 1) how I spend my time (less Internet; more Bible study); 2) my eating habits (can a person really live without junk for 6 weeks? We're about to find out); and 3) a daily commitment to prayer - which is an incredible privilege, and not a burdensome chore. Of course, there is grace when we fail, and God's power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9); but we have the promise that God rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). What is the reward?

Friendship with Himself.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Also see Lent: Joy in the Midst of Sacrifice over at Sojourns with Jesus.

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