by Javan Rowe
We live in a society where success is determined by the amount of stuff we’ve acquired. It’s tempting to develop an unholy outlook on our possessions, considering them ours to purchase, sell, or throw away. The Bible has much to say on this topic, particularly in the words of Jesus. Can the season of Lent help us maintain a proper perspective regarding our belongings?
Lent can intrude on our materialistic mindset, forcing us to rethink our relationship with earthly goods. The observance of Lent was not a part of my church upbringing. Easter was certainly important, but the season of Lent was not considered important. As I have matured I have become increasingly more attracted to the idea of Lent. Though I do not hold to it as strictly as some religious groups do, I set that time apart for extra prayer and introspection. I have gained certain blessings from annually practicing this type of spiritual spring cleaning.
The Bible contains many examples of repentance, mourning, and fasting. In the Book of Esther, when Mordecai learned about Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews, he and his countrymen fasted and wept. When Daniel recognized the sins of his people, Scripture says he “gave [his] attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplication, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3, New American Standard Bible). Jesus also gave a warning to those cities that would not repent in the manner practiced throughout the Old Testament.
The ancient church councils took the themes of repentance and fasting, linked them with the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, and instituted the annual observance of Lent. Eventually this practice moved from a focus on fasting to one of spiritual renewal and preparation for Easter. Though the rules fluctuated between strict observance and a more relaxed penitence down through the ages, Lent historically included prayer, penitence, almsgiving, and self-denial. It was widely observed in the church until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Many chose not to observe Lent, focusing primarily on Easter itself.
An unfortunate divergence arose in the lives of believers who felt they could satisfy the lusts of the flesh during their time of the carnival and maintain piety during Lent. The carnival, also known as Mardi Gras, involved up to a week of gluttony, violence, and sometimes uninhibited sex. The festivities ended on Ash Wednesday, which began the season of Lent. Many of those same people then fasted and became “proper” Christians.
Even though this paradox existed in the church, Lent was still considered the most important time of the year for believers.
Today the observance of Lent often requires nothing more than giving up a type of food, if it is practiced at all.
Loosening Your Grip
Jesus taught his followers a vital lesson when he responded to a rich man who approached him. The man wanted to know how he could obtain eternal life, claiming to have obeyed the commandments. Knowing what he lacked, Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21, New International Version). The man had no idea his wealth was holding him back and he was unwilling to give up the goods.
Like the rich man, we sometimes think our actions please God, when the truth is, our priorities are misplaced. We often do not realize our possessions are preventing us from truly experiencing Christ.
Here is where Lent comes in. You may adhere to strict observance of this holiday season, or like me, maybe you use it for spiritual inventory. Either way, Lent can help us loosen the grip our possessions have on us. We should never give something up, such as chocolate, simply out of duty. We need to analyze every aspect of our lives to determine if anything is standing in the way of total surrender to God. If you choose to bypass high fructose corn syrup for Lent, allow that discipline to carry over and loosen the intense grip the flesh can have on you. Use the Lenten season to rethink your attitude toward God’s blessings.
The Danger of Compartmentalization
We saw how the church’s history included an unfortunate hypocrisy where nearly everything was allowed during the carnival, while nothing was permitted during Lent. We may scoff at such behavior or even pass judgment on those who engage in it. But I wonder, have we been guilty of the same kind of spiritual duplicity?
Some time ago I heard a Christian teacher on the radio address an issue he called “Grapefruit Christianity.” He explained that many Christians place certain parts of their lives in compartments, resembling a grapefruit that has been cut in half. Once we have our lives compartmentalized we let God into certain sections of the grapefruit, closing off other parts. We do not freely give all of ourselves to him.
In Romans Paul wrote, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as an instrument of righteousness” (6:13, emphasis mine). It is not enough to serve God during Lent, only to return to half-commitments once Easter is over. Instead, we should obey Scripture and “offer every part” of ourselves to God for his service.
Rather than simply fasting from food, we should move into a fast from sin, and feel true sorrow for our offenses against God. Even if we do not follow the liturgical calendar we can use the Lenten season to anticipate Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s sacrifice should move us into a faith that is free from materialistic obstacles and compartmentalized religion. The Holy Spirit can guide us into a life fully devoted to God if we let him. When we do this, we can make every day Lent.
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
What is Lent?
About.com describes the purpose:
“Lent is a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ—his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection.
“The Bible does not mention the custom of Lent, however, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found.”
Wikipedia explains the timing:
“Conventionally, [Lent] is described as being forty days long, though different denominations calculate the forty days differently. The forty days represent the time that . . . Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan.”
How did Lent get its name?
Several theories exist about which exact language and words the term Lent derived from. But whichever words inspired it, Lent meant “springtime.” So, since the Easter season is always in spring, Lent became known as this period leading up to Easter.
Just for Fun
Test your knowledge of Lent and the Lenten practices of various groups by taking this short quiz: