By JANICE SIX
As the season of Lent draws near, even Christians from non-liturgical denominations and traditions can be heard discussing what they plan to “give up” during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter morning. It’s baffling to me what people choose to “give up” as a spiritual practice during Lent. For example: Chocolate. Yes, it’s considered to be a temptation and some even consider it addictive, but what does giving up chocolate have to do with Jesus? We all have a bad habit or two that we wish we’d never started, but is giving up an innocuous habit Lent-worthy?
It concerns me that this spiritual practice, which is holy to many, is unintentionally being trivialized by those of us whose practice of it has little to do with repentance and more to do with short-term self-control. Giving up something during Lent is more than a test of our willpower. In fact, testing our willpower may be the antithesis of this spiritual practice that’s intended as a means of recognizing and confessing our weakness and dependency not on ourselves but on God’s grace extended to us through Jesus the Christ. Electing to give up something for 40 days with little or no thought given to how its continued practice threatens to undermine or stunt the growth of our relationship with the risen Lord, is to practice it in vain.
Are we not robbing this holy practice of the reverence it is due each time the something we choose to give up has more to do with vanity or accolades from our peers than enriching our relationship with the triune God? Are we robbing ourselves of a spiritual annual check-up when we fail to prayerfully exam our lives, admit our weaknesses, repent of wrongdoing, and submit our will to God’s will? This is not to suggest that we give up giving up something during Lent, but rather that we enter into this practice with prayerful forethought and an appreciation for the way the Holy Spirit might exercise its transformative power to change us during this time of contrition.
For those of us who have limited knowledge of Lent’s liturgical back-story, the first step we need to take is to educate ourselves about the purpose and contemplative practice of giving up something during Lent. The second step—if we choose to take it—is to thoughtfully and prayerfully examine our lifestyle, motives and goals to see if they are God-centered or self-centered. And the third step is to admit our powerlessness in the face of temptation and earnestly seek God’s strength and refuge in times of trial. Finally, a less conventional suggestion is to redefine what we mean by “giving up.”
Instead of focusing on the sacrifice or the act of laying down that which we are being led to give up, let’s consider God’s loss when we remain in our self-centered ways. For example, once watching television escalates to bingeing on entertaining movies, my interest in delving into the church’s response to human trafficking or listening to lectures by some of my favorite theologians is lost. My attention has been drawn away from justice efforts or edifying lectures that are surely pleasing to God and given over to guffaws and Hollywood drama.
God’s loss is my attentive ear and compassion for the oppressed. Therefore, rather than simply declaring that I am giving up bingeing on entertaining movies, I go a step farther and consider what will be gained by abstaining from the obsessive behavior. The gain then becomes the offering–with arms raised and outstretched hands. In this example, what I am offering is my attention and compassion for the oppressed and enslaved. No doubt, this pleases God…even more than giving up chocolate.
Janice Six is associate pastor of First Central Presbyterian Church