One of the hallmarks of the Season of Lent is what do you give up on? I remember when I was in the Navy there was a guy who used to give up smokes, alcohol, and red meat for lent. On the last day of Lent, at midnight, he would be ready with a can of beer, cigarette and steak to tuck into as the clock ticked over. I have to say that throughout Lent there was no discernible evidence that his giving up those three things made a difference in his life and when Lent was over, he went back to them.
Giving up in Lent
Lent is about getting closer to God. Most of us already have a reasonable relationship with God. We pray, read our bibles, are involved in a faith community. So isn’t that enough? Well, yes, and no. We can be doing those things and still not have a particularly good relationship with the Lord. One only has to look at all the panoply of sexual misconduct that has been going on in the church recently to be aware of that. Many of those perpetrators were going saying their prayers, reading their bibles, and serving in the faith community. Yet they were clearly well away from God, and his laws and commandments for right behaviour. Why is that?
There are plenty of other examples of misbehaviour in the church by seemingly good, church going people. Why is that? These are obvious examples, and there are more subtle ones, such as being deceptive, not reliable, many faithful Christians divorce etc. All these impair our relationship with God, but if we are saying our prayers, reading our bibles, and serving God in the church, then how is that we get into these situations? Put simply, we haven’t given up the right things for Lent, and into our Christian life.
Lets face it, we all have some sort of idol in our life. It might be that money is our weakness, alcohol, gambling, it might be that we can’t help criticise, or gossip, as we get a thrill of disclosing something salacious. It might be that we love entertainment, computer games, TV etc, things that distract us from our relationship with God. Of course all these things done properly are not idolatrous in themselves, they only become this way when we allow them to be a focus in our lives, instead of allowing them to have proper place in our thoughts or in our actions. When they start to distract us, and to become bigger than they ought in our lives then they need to be attended to, especially in Lent.
One of the ways that we can surrender them to God is indeed through the season of Lent, giving up what we think is an idol in our life. When we give up something for a period of time such as Lent we may find that we can give it up forever. While it is not exactly the same thing, I remember how I gave up smoking in the early 80s. I came down with the most horrendous cold, crackly sore throat that lingered for 5 weeks. I could not even look at a cigarette in that time, and then when I got better, I found I did not crave them anymore, and I haven’t smoked since. Now my example is very rare, but the principle is the same.
In Galatians 5:19ff we read, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.” Now some of these might not apply to you, but note the closing three words, “and anything similar.” This list of Paul’s is not meant to be exhaustive or limiting. He is simply using these as examples. We are to examine our own lives and see where we stack up. Just because we might not do any of these does not mean we are out of the woods. We are called to reflect on our lives and see if they are God honouring. Another way to check is to continue reading from v22 to see if we exhibit any of the the following traits, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Do we truly exhibit these traits in our lives? Again, we don’t have to exhibit all of them, but some of them would be nice. It is also not good enough to exhibit these to only those whom we either deem worthy or like. They are to be exhibited to all.
So while Lent is often about “Giving something up” it can also be about “Taking something up.” Or even both.