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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, February 23, 2007

Lenten Observence

We have officially entered the season of the Church calendar known as Lent. Lent is the forty-day period leading up to Easter. It has historically been practiced as a period of fasting and prayer, a period of penitence and of seeking God in a fuller way than we normally seek Him the rest of the year.

I'll admit to being a bit inconsistent in my practice of Lent. I blame it on my legalistic and Fundamentalistic background (assuming "blame" is the right way to think of it here). As J. I. Packer once used the phrase in a similar context, "a burned child hates the fire," and I still have scars to show from the fire I went through. Nor do I intend to ever go through such a fire again. Fundamentalism, with its series of "handle not's, taste not's, and touch not's" (Col. 2:21), has left American Christianity in shambles. Legalism – that is, the creation and enforcing of laws not supported by God's word – stirs up a licentious and rebellious spirit, and rather than eradicating immorality, encourages it. I have tried to be aware of that tendency in my own life and to keep it under some measure of control, though I'm sure I've failed at times. Nonetheless, whenever anybody says to me, "you have to do thus and such", and they can't support it with Scripture or sound argument, my first response is to say, "Try and make me." I wouldn't purport that this is always a good way to respond. After all, we are to obey those that God has put in authority over us. When it comes, however, to areas more specifically related to the heart of the Christian life, such as one's devotional practices, a man not only shouldn't obey extra-biblical laws, he can't obey those laws, for to do so would be to call God's law insufficient. At that point, there is a clear antithesis between God's law and Man's law – one can't obey one without disobeying the other.

In the Reformed tradition historically, however, we have had a category of practices in the Christian life called "adiaphora", meaning "indifferent". In other words, there are things which the law of God doesn't directly address in such a way as to forbid or condone, and therefore they are permissible or "indifferent". I would personally regard a private observance of Lenten practices in that category, though I remain skeptical of them. The majority of the Reformed tradition, however, has disagreed with me, John Calvin not being the least of them. Calvin addresses fasting in Book 4, Chapter 12 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. And whereas he recognizes fasting as a good and important thing in its place, he still regards it as a thing indifferent, and he condemns Lent itself as an unbiblical and ungodly practice. Reading his responses to the history of Lent and the abuses that came about in relation to it, one can understand why he was so opposed to it, though I wouldn't go so far as to condemn its practices as he does.

Speaking of the errors that arose in relation to the practice of Lent in the history of the Church, Calvin says, "Worse times then followed, and to the misdirected zeal of the people was added the incompetence and lack of training of the bishops, as well as their lust for mastery and their tyrannical rigor. Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man. Sacrilegious opinions were piled upon one another, until the depth of all errors was reached." (from the Battles – McNeill edition, volume 2, pg. 1247)

The most commonly known Lenten practice is that of abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. But from what I've read, no one really knows why this is traditionally a practice in the Church or where it came from. Which brings up a problem. Why bind people with laws when we don't even know what they are for? Those who approve of the practice will say, "It helps take our focus off of ourselves and those material things we rely upon, and helps us to focus upon God Who gives us all these things." Maybe it's a sign of my own lack of sanctification, but it doesn't do that for me. In case anyone wasn't paying attention, it's hard enough to live faithfully to God's word without trying to add to it. Why would anyone want to burden themselves further than what God has asked of them? I think part of the problem lies in the fact that we think way too highly of ourselves. So often we arrogantly think we're doing a really grand job in the Christian life, and in failing to see the greatness of God and the depth of our sin, we don't realize how far short we fall. If we were to gain a deeper understanding of God's word and what He really requires of us, we would spend less time trying to come up with new rules.

And one thing I've found is that people often become incredibly obsessed with what they are and aren't supposed to do in Lent. It is naturally easy for us to talk hours on end about what we should and shouldn't do. But the early Reformers saw this as the difference between Law and Gospel. They spoke of the Law coming natural to us, whereas the Gospel is only manifested in us by a supernatural work of God. It is a sign of our sinfulness that we can talk endlessly about what we are and aren't supposed to do and can't talk nearly as much about the grace manifested to us in Jesus Christ. This is true, I've seen, in Catholic circles just as it is in Fundamentalist circles. Just try getting a conversation going about the Scriptures, the history of redemption, and the person and work of Christ. I've found that generally it's like trying to pull teeth. Jesus brought this tendency in the Pharisees to light when He told them, "You search the Scriptures, because in them you think you find life. But these are they that testify of Me." Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all God has revealed to us. If we go to any law apart from Christ, even God's Law, we are participating in idolatry.

One statement I heard made recently by an Anglican priest shows the problem in bold relief. This priest made the statement, "The Rule of St. Benedict says that our lives ought to be a continuous Lent." He was applying it to all Christian people. I found this rather curious, and had to look it up for myself. The actual statement is from chapter 49 of the Rule, and it says, " The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent." This is the super-spirituality that the Reformers decried so vociferously. First we begin by setting up a false standard of holiness by denying an enjoyment of the good gifts that God has given so freely for our enjoyment. We set those who pursue this ideal most vigorously apart as a holier class than the rest of professing Christendom. Then we push it further by setting it up as a standard for all people. But Scripture nowhere supports this. In fact, God in His Word invites us over and over again to feasting before Him with joy and gladness, that is, with grateful hearts. This is not to say that there can't be times of fasting – there should be. But this shouldn't be the norm. The normal Christian life isn't one of constant self-deprivation, but of rejoicing over the blessings that God has given us and of sharing freely with others.

This brings up one more point I'd like to mention before I close, and that is the tendency towards selfishness in the Christian life. There can be so much talk about "what I'm giving up for Lent," and the subject of other people and my relationships with them never enters the picture. This is an example of how self-centered we can be in our conception of sanctification. Self-deprivation never has selfish gain as its end in the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. How many people who give meat up on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent then in turn have a neighbor or someone from church over for a hamburger on one of the other days of the week? If that actually happens (and maybe it does somewhere), I've never heard the suggestion made nor have I ever heard of it being done in those circles that practice Lent.

Having said all these things, I wouldn't seek to condemn Lent wholesale. I think it is good for the church to set aside a time of reflection, a time of mourning over our sins, a time of retracing our steps, a time of recovering what we have lost in failing to follow Christ as we ought, and a time of reflecting on Christ's work on our behalf. And that is how I intend to observe Lent. But I will remain stubborn in my insistence that God's Word is sufficient and Christ's work is complete. Every rule I need is found in the Scriptures, and everything I need to please God is found through my union with His Son. I need nothing else, and that's good, because I have nothing else.

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