We have entered the Lenten season, and many of us have made plans to “give up” something for the 40 days leading up to Easter–chocolate, or certain meats, or a certain habit. It is traditional to use this time leading up to Holy Week to focus on preparing our hearts to receive the Gift of salvation that comes from Christ’s resurrection on Easter.
But, in a larger sense, there is nothing we can do to prepare for Grace– it is completely unmerited favor. My willingness to deny my sweet tooth for six weeks cannot make me ready for God to allow His wrath to fall on His Holy Son, so that I can be declared righteous for all eternity. It is no more than a gesture.
God is not impressed by our Lenten traditions. This doesn’t mean that we should not make the gesture; it doesn’t mean that we cannot grow closer to God by such observances. But we must not place too much reliance on them. Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He gave up far more than we can imagine in order to rescue us from all that we deserve. Jesus not only gave up His human life on the Cross, He gave up His throne, His status, His omnipresence, and His omnipotence. He allowed Himself to be subject to human authorities, and He served those He had created.
Jesus didn’t just “give up” something on His way to the Cross. He offered everything He was! May we seek to do the same. May we pray, along with Jesus in the Garden, “..not my will, but Yours be done..” (Luke 22:42)
I’ve written dozens of blog posts about prayer, and very little about fasting. Fasting is a practice that is often coupled with prayer, but fasting rarely appears in my blog.
There are several reasons for this. I don’t make a practice of dedicated fasting, so I don’t feel comfortable writing about something I don’t know well. or practice often. I also don’t want to give fasting equal time or importance, because I feel it can become a substitute or even an obstacle to prayer if done for the wrong reasons.
The Lenten season is fast approaching, and it is a time when many people choose to fast, so I am stepping out of my comfort zone a little to give more time and effort to fasting (and discussing it here). Here are a few things I have found:
While we often think of fasting as going without food or water (or both), there are actually many kinds of fasting. Fasting simply means that we do without or set aside something as an act of obedience, reverence, contrition, or worship. Fasting should be done with the goal of getting closer to God, increasing our focus and our dependence on Him. When we fast, we are creating a “space” of dependence– separating ourselves from one thing to be available for another thing– namely prayer and worship. It isn’t about not eating, so much as not allowing food and drink (or other things) to call us away from time with God.
Fasting is Biblical. It was practiced by Biblical figures from Moses to King David, Ezra, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, and the entire nation of Israel! Jesus fasted and members of the early church practiced fasting as well. Fasting is encouraged, but not required. It is never prohibited, but there are several biblical warnings about improper fasting (see below).
Fasting is NOT meant to be an end in itself. There are many people who use fasting as a diet plan, or as an exercise in self-control. This is NOT biblical fasting. Whatever you are “setting aside” in your fast should be “filled” with prayer, meditation, and worship, and that should always be your focus. If you have health issues, a history of eating disorders or obsessive behavior, you should be very careful about fasting. Consider seeking advice or an accountability partner to help you remained focused on the real goals.
Fasting will not make you more righteous, or better than someone else who does not practice fasting. In fact, Jesus warned that when we fast, we should not do anything to call attention to the fact– no moaning or sighing, etc. Fasting isn’t about impressing others with our religious devotion. God knows our actions, but He also knows our heart.
Fasting is a commitment, and should not be taken lightly. If you decide to do a fast, and you’ve never done one, it’s best to start small and complete it, than to jump in headfirst and fail to keep your commitment. Not because God will be angry or disgusted– remember that God LOVES you and wants you to desire a closer relationship. But God wants each of us to grow to maturity. God will give us grace to do what He asks us to do; but He won’t honor our efforts to “outdo” Him.
In taking a closer look at fasting, I am encouraged to do it more often. I have done short fasts, food fasts, and fasting from activities, and I can say that such practices often have surprising results. If you are planning to do any kind of fast for Lent, I pray that you will find it brings you closer to God and helps you in your own pursuit of prayer.
We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.
There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.
Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”
But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”
If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.
Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.
Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.
It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.
But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.
Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!
Gossip and judgment are nasty habits– what happens when they creep into our prayer life?
I’ve sometimes struggled with the idea of praying for those who have hurt me or mistreated those I love. We are commanded to do it, but often, I am tempted to pray about my enemies instead of praying for them. As if God didn’t know what they had done; as if he needed me to alert him to their bad behavior, and remind him of how I was slighted, misunderstood, or powerless to bring justice to my friend or family member who was wronged. I want to tell God how to treat them– how to punish them, or abase them, or bring them to feel remorse. I want to hang on to the indignation and sense of victimhood–after all, God is going to make it right in the end, vindicating me and humiliating them, right? Except that’s not how it works in God’s economy…My vindication does not come at their expense, but through the blood of the truly innocent Lamb of God. Let that sink in. God is not in the business of torturing others to make himself feel more righteous. If I want to follow Christ, my actions, and my prayers, should be full of his Grace, not my bitterness.
I am not alone in this– and I’m sure I have been “prayed about” often enough. Even saints and matriarchs of old have done it. And King David was guilty of it as well–several of the Psalms include angry, even vicious rants against David’s enemies. It’s understandable; it’s only natural for us to feel indignant, angry, and hurt in the face of injustice, unkindness, hatred, and abuse. And it’s not inappropriate for us to cry out for justice, or pour out our hurt and frustration. But it is wrong to stand in judgment and unforgiveness when we come before the throne of Heaven.
I believe that these are the difficult prayers that teach us to know God better– as well as ourselves. To pray for those who have hurt us means that we must move beyond what they have done– not to deny it, or to excuse or forget about it, but to give it over to God –and deal with who they are. They are lost exactly as we are lost, but for the grace of God. They are redeemable, not because they can undo or atone for what has happened, but because God says that whosoever trusts in Him can be saved. They are precious in God’s sight. When we stop focusing on who hurt us, and how, we can instead focus on who heals us, and how he wants to heal others.
These prayers also serve to remind us that our true “enemies” are not the people who say or do unkind or even wicked things. Our true enemies are not the ones who can hurt our feelings, or even our minds or bodies. Our true enemies are the ones who would steal our souls– who tempt us to hold on to rage and despair, to hopelessness and doubt, to bitterness and shame.
It is so easy to write these words, and to “know” the right thing to do. But it is a painful, heartbreaking, humbling, stumbling uphill climb to DO the right thing. I still catch myself so often praying about certain people, instead of praying for them. God knows my heart–he knows if my prayer is sincere. And, as I struggle, I am reminded that the change I would wish to see in someone else mirrors the change I should wish to see in me The same Grace that God sends to heal and comfort me is the same Grace he offers to everyone who will take it–even when they choose not to accept it.
So I hope I am learning to pray for those who sneer at me; those who lash out in their own pain, anger, or thoughtlessness. To pray for their health and safety, their well-being, and their wholeness. For their sake–for the sake of the One who loves them eternally. And in the hope that healing and restoration will triumph over what lies in the past.
We are entering the season of Lent. It is supposed to be a season of reflection, repentance, confession, and preparation. Some people refer to it as a spring cleaning of the soul. It is a time when many give things up or abstain from things– certain habits or routines, certain foods or activities. This can be a good practice for many reasons– it teaches us discipline and patience; it reminds us of all that Christ gave up for us; it turns our focus from common earthly things to spiritual matters; and it frees us from habits and routines that have not only pulled us away from God, but away from each other.
I grew up with very mixed, and mostly negative, feelings about Lent. Neither my family nor my church celebrated Lent. Many of my friends did, and their stories did very little to change my views. I saw the season as drudgery, self-imposed punishment, dreary and legalistic, a cheerless, fruitless, and (mostly) meatless way of counting down to Easter. No one seemed to “celebrate” it– it was more like they endured it. My views have since changed, but I don’t think they were all that uncommon, and I think I was missing something of great value, something I would like to explore.
There are three important elements of Lent that I have struggled with, and I would like to share what I’ve learned.
There is great value in sober, somber reflection. Our world is constantly calling us to revelry, happiness, entertainment, activity, and superficial comfort. We see weakness in mourning for, and admitting to, our sins. We judge those who are serious and sober as “stodgy”, “boring”, and “prosy”. We feel awkward in stillness and silent self-examination. But the Bible paints a very different picture. And the practices of fasting, confession, and meditation, practiced across a spectrum of religions, have been shown to promote better physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as spiritual well-being.
Because we don’t value Godly sorrow– we sometimes substitute other practices that make a mockery of what Lent should be about. I know I am not perfect, but I don’t want to feel that emptiness, that bankruptcy of spirit, that comes with honest confession and repentance. In fact, I sometimes “glamorize” what is really petty. I justify my bitterness, I excuse my selfishness, I “confide” my dislikes and judgmental thoughts about others. And I bring these sins before God, not in sorrow and humility, but in scandal, as though he will be shocked or even entertained by my wayward behavior
Which brings me to the third thing–cheap grace. I spend a lot of time talking about Christian living– about the value of prayer, and confession being good for the soul. I talk about being forgiven, and loving God, and wanting to serve him better. But I have fallen into the very bad habit of seeing God as Ward Cleaver, or Ozzie Nelson– lovable and authoritative, but not Sovereign or supremely Holy –“There, there, child. That’s all right. You’ve confessed, and you’ve learned your lesson. We’ll just forget that ever happened.” Lent should lead us to dependence on God’s amazing grace. It is the work of Christ in us– and only that– that saves, renews, and empowers us. There is a danger in our culture that we cheapen grace by making the focus on what we know, or say about Christianity, rather than what God does through us. Cheap grace leads to cheap talk–in my daily life, and in my prayer life.
This year for Lent, I’m not going to talk about giving up fast food, or Facebook, or shopping at my favorite store. I’m not going to set a checklist or a target for random acts of kindness or giving alms. I’m not even going to set a schedule for extra prayers or a list of special prayers just for this season. There’s nothing wrong with any of those; in fact, if you’re thinking of doing any of the above (or all of the above), I encourage you to do it with all my heart. My prayer for the next forty days will be to invite God to clean out the pretense and hand-wringing, sweep away the cobwebs of analyzing and making excuses, and empty my heart of pride, self-sufficiency, and false guilt, so that he can fill it again with love for him and for others. Love that is more than cheap talk. Love that pours out life and renewal– just as Christ poured out his blood on Good Friday, poured out glory on Easter morning, and poured out power at Pentecost. Not because it was part of a 40-day program of renewal, but because it could not be contained.