The Grinch who stole Lent

March 4, 2014

Just in time for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli reminds us what a lousy program for self-improvement Lent really is.

I know, I know… We’re not exactly “giving up something” or fasting in order to improve ourselves: whatever the reason we practice more intense forms of self-discipline during Lent, it’s supposed to have something to do with God, not us. But, good heavens, suppose we do fast one day a week during Lent, or give up chocolate or beer, shouldn’t there be some payoff on the bathroom scale?

As Galli well knows, it’s hard to avoid these sorts of “what’s-in-it-for-me” thoughts during Lent. Besides, there must be some payoff, right?

Maybe not. Galli would say that I tell myself (and my congregation) “white lies” when I extol a couple of so-called “benefits” of Lenten discipline.

As we discipline ourselves in small things (eating sweets), it will inevitably help us discipline ourselves in large things (like being generous to the poor). We get this from Jesus, of course (Luke 16:10), but it’s theinevitably that’s the problem. You see, when picking the small thing for self-discipline, we sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not all that small. We pick it because it plagues us, and has plagued us for years. This means it’s likely to continue to plague us for years to come. And so instead of helping us to move on to loving others, our life energy is spent trying to not eat little pieces of candy.

Fasting doesn’t even necessarily lead us into deeper prayer, which is the big twofer of fasting for some people: We discipline the body while immersing ourselves in prayer. But when I fast, prayer is the last thing I feel like doing. I’m tired, weak, and thinking about food the whole time I’m praying.

So, instead of the small thing helping me become faithful in the big thing, it just makes me focus more and more on the small thing. Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways. I believe, but O Lord, help the enormity of my unbelief.

Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

That’s pretty much my experience—except when I accomplish a fast I feel really good… as in proud of myself. And that brings me back to Galli’s point: I’m reminded how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

I’ve read Richard Foster on the subject of fasting, in his excellent book Celebration of Discipline, and Foster would nod sympathetically at Galli’s words. He writes about all our temptations to make fasting (which would also apply to its less severe form, “giving something up”) about us. He warns us that it’s not about self-help. He says we don’t even fast in order for God to bestow some blessing on us. He would probably also say that it’s helpful for us to be reminded how little we love God, etc.

But I’ve never heard Foster say anything like what Galli says here:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march…

So I end this little essay by grabbing two more pieces of candy, for Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow! It will be time to give myself again to disciplines great and small. I do that partly because, in the end, it is probably better to be a little more disciplined or loving and self-righteous than undisciplined, unloving, and merely lazy. And who knows, by God’s grace, I may lose track of what my left hand is doing!

But I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.

And recalling that I have one.

We observe Lent, including Lenten practices of fasting or giving something up, in order to remind us how sinful we are and desperately we need a Savior.

Amen!

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