Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lent for Dummies [and Presbyterians] part 2 of 3: Putting Off

So how ought we observe and benefit from Lent?  I recommend the 2-fold Biblical Pattern of putting off and putting on.

Putting Off

Putting off involves first repentance and then forms of fasting.

As a point of important clarification, it is vital to remember that Christians never fast from sin.  Sin isn’t to be fasted from.  It is to be repented of quickly and forcibly.  Remember our Lord’s words in Matthew 5.29-30.
Fasting is a temporary time of giving up otherwise good things; things like certain types of food or drink, alcohol, caffeine, a meal, TV, the internet, use of a computer, phone, or mobile device, Facebook, the daily news, talk radio, secular music, shopping, that fine-but-time-consuming-hobby, etc. and replacing them with prayer, Scripture, and good works.
During this season of preparation, repentance is the first order of business.  What sins have drifted in under the radar?  Where have we become lazy in our sanctification, holiness, purity, or integrity?  We plan to meditate through the classic list of the seven deadly sins.  This is the time to consider yourself honestly.  Ask your spouse or a close friend for the favor of a faithful wound.  What sin most needs targeting by your deliberate repentance?  Pray earnestly for God to show you.
In addition to specific sins, there is the general malaise that can creep in.  I recommend spending the next few days prayerfully considering the patterns and habits of your life, individually and in your home.  What sorts of habits, intakes, entertainments, ways of speaking, cycles, unhealthy dependencies, budding addictions, negative tendencies have begun to crop up?  Lent is the season to uproot these.

But don't ever forget that Lent is a season of putting off in order to put on.
Repentance is turning from bad things. Fasting is the removal of a good thing to make room for a better thing.  Lenten fasts are not just weight loss programs or personal challenges. If you start by thinking, 'I wonder if I could make it 40 days without "x"?' You're going about it all wrong.  For this reason, I suggest steering clear of "comfort fasts"; things like wearing a burlap undershirt, showering without hot water, or exchanging the soft comfort of your mattress and pillow for the floor.  I understand the idea behind all these, but they tend to devolve into bare endurance events.  God is not impressed by our endurance [Is 58.6-7].  Far better to spend 40 days giving thanks for warm showers than attempting to grit it out with none.
Instead, look for redemptive sacrifices that can result in more communion with God and positive good for yourself and others.  If you prayerfully decide to fast from some food, be sure to redeem the time by putting on prayer, devotion, Scripture reading, singing, meditation, memorization, rest, and good works.  You are taking time from other things in order to spend it in God's presence on the mountain in the hope that when you return, your face too might have something of the gracious glow [Ex 24; Mt 17].

That being said, fasting is a form of what many Saints have come to refer to as "spiritual exercise".  Now, to be sure, there is a vain way to go about this [Mt 15.16-18; 23.23-24; Acts 10.15-16; Rom 14.6; 1 Cor 10.25-30; Eph 6.12; Col 2.23; 1 Tim 4.1-5; James 1.17 and Jim Jordan here and here or C.S. Lewis here] - as if sin resides in things rather than in our own hearts and by simply avoiding things [which are really the good gifts of God in creation] we can be free of contamination and sin - or as if fasting rather than feasting were the bread and butter of the Christian life [pun intended].  But there is also a wise and beneficial way to exercise the spiritual muscles of abstinence, mortify the flesh, and practice saying "No!" to the appetites of the body.  God has told us in His Word that there is value in such things when they are done rightly [Mt 4.4; 6.16; 17.21; Jn 4.34; Acts 13.3; 14.23; 1 Cor 7.5; 9.24-27; Titus 2.11-12].

It is hard to imagine a time in American history when God's people more need to cultivate the ability to say "no" to their bodily appetites than today.  But it takes a great deal of spiritual muscle to do this, and Lent can be a time of helpful training and strengthening for those muscles.

As far as strict fasting, traditionally, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday frame the season as the only two whole days when most Christians fast from food much or all of the day, trading meal time for prayer time.

One more thing: if you do decide to eliminate something, don’t broadcast it to the world or trudge around with a continual chorus of signs and moans [Mt 6.16].  This is the wrong kind of "putting on" and isn't so much "putting off" as it is off-putting.  That sort of fasting is actually anti-Christian.  Christ told His disciples to fast in joy and hope [Mt 6.16].  Because of our Lord's blessing, fasting can actually be more glorious than miserable [see Peter Leithart here.]  So keep your fast between yourself and God and maybe a small circle of close friends or counselors.

Part 3-The Right Kind of Putting On.

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