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The pitfalls of ‘giving up’ things for Lent


The right way to take on Lenten spiritual practices

By Chip Hardwick | Presbyterians Today

Chocolate candyIsaiah 58:1–12 is one of the suggested lectionary texts for Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14.

Lent is a great time to focus more fully on our spiritual lives. For centuries, the church has encouraged us to give up something that brings us pleasure, so that we can be more in touch with Jesus’ self-denial. More recently, Christians have taken on new spiritual practices such as practicing intentional hospitality or reading the Scriptures more faithfully as a way of prioritizing God’s ways over our ways.

We’ll kick off Lent on Feb. 14 this year with the lectionary suggesting Isaiah 58:1–12 as one passage for preachers. (I encourage you to take a minute to read and reflect on it now.) Maybe one thing that caught your attention in the passage is that the Israelites are indeed humbling themselves before God by fasting — a traditional Lenten practice — but the Holy One is not having any of it! God tells Isaiah to declare to them “their rebellion, . . . their sins.”

The Israelites may have known something was wrong even before Isaiah passed along this rebuke, however, because they were already complaining to God, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?”

So, God is mad at the Israelites, even though they’re doing spiritual disciplines. And the Israelites are mad at God, even though they’re doing spiritual disciplines. It’s enough to make me pause before entering Lent full throttle, trying to walk humbly before our God with an intentional spiritual practice. It’s made me want to dig into what has gone wrong with the Israelites’ approach to the practices they’ve taken on, and figure out where they’ve gotten turned around. After all, maybe you’re like me — not all that excited to enter Lent with God mad at us and us mad at God!

Here’s the problem: All those centuries ago, the people of God fell into a trap that we sometimes fall into today. They started thinking that spiritual practices, like their fasting, are an end unto themselves, rather than the means to an end. They mistakenly believed that it is a good thing to do these practices in and of themselves, rather than doing them because they serve a larger purpose.

In other words, we don’t give up chocolate for Lent to prove to ourselves we have the willpower to do so. We give up chocolate because practicing self-denial prepares us for another step in our Christian walk. We don’t read the Bible every day leading up to Easter to pat ourselves on the back and say, “This is what good Christians do.” We dig into the Scriptures because that strengthens us to do something else. It’s not enough to take on these practices in and of themselves. Their real value is that they equip us to go further in our faithfulness.

So, what is the next step that we are prepared to take? What’s the end for which the spiritual practices serve as a means? The passage from Isaiah makes it clear: We do these spiritual disciplines to live lives that glorify God and extend God’s blessings to others.

In our passage from Isaiah, God asks the Israelites, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them . . . ?”

We add spiritual practices in Lent as a means for the Spirit to strengthen us so we can humble ourselves and put others before ourselves to help them experience the abundant life that Jesus offers them — a life of material, physical and spiritual sufficiency and goodness. When this happens, we realize that Lent isn’t just a great time to focus on our own spiritual lives — it’s a fantastic time to focus on others, too.

The Rev. Chip Hardwick is the former director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism for the PC(USA).

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