The offering plates journeyed methodically around the sanctuary as the Ash Wednesday service at Church of the Holy Analogy drew to a close. As an act of sacrifice and respect, the church members wrote down the things they planned to give up during Lent on pieces of paper and placed them in the offering plates as they circulated. Some of these Lenten disciplines were deeply profound –a few of them potentially life-altering–, but right there at the top of the plate was one that didn’t quite fit the tone of the season. When the offering plates were returned to the front of the sanctuary, the pastor scratched his head in disbelief as he noticed the words of this particular less-than-selfless sacrifice: “Lose ten pounds by Easter.”
21st Century America has got to be the most confusing time and place to observe Lent. In a society so preoccupied with self-betterment, it seems like we’ve lost our handle on what really constitutes self-discipline. Popup ads on our computers offer the secret to washboard abs in only six weeks. Magazine covers in the checkout aisle scream at us about easy healthy habits for a healthier, happier you. There’s even a developing field of behavioral economics that’s all about making your brain more rational and more efficient. And all of this exists in the name of building a bigger, better, brainier you!
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to make yourself better. Improved nutrition and exercise can prolong and enrich your life, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to make the most of the body and mind God has given you. The problem comes when we allow these practices of self-betterment to masquerade as self-sacrifice. Our personal diet and exercise regimens can easily become a matter of pharisaic public piety, and this has a tendency to surface most during Lent.
Using Twitter, Christianity Today has been keeping track of what people give up most for Lent each year, and although the 2013 data are still being collected, the 2012 data can be viewed here. Looking at the list, I can’t help but notice some trends. Aside from the humorous fact that the number one thing Twitter users give up for Lent is Twitter itself, it seems like most of the things people give up are related to health and habits, and that raises a few questions for me: Are we really giving up chocolate, sodas, and fast food to remember Jesus, or does it have more to do with losing weight? Are we really giving up Facebook and Twitter to remember Jesus, or does it have more to do with increasing our productivity? Are we really giving up swearing to remember Jesus, or does it have more to do with kicking a nasty habit? Maybe I’m being overly skeptical, but I can’t help wondering: how many of these disciplines are more about us than about God and His Kingdom?
In Isaiah 58, the prophet doesn’t hesitate to turn our understanding of fasting on its head. He talks about the importance of discipline not for ourselves, but for God and His creation. The fast that the Lord demands is not one of self-betterment, but of making this world a better place for all whom God loves. We shouldn’t simply eat less; we should share our food with those who have none. We shouldn’t simply resist impulse buys; we should save that money and donate it to a ministry. We shouldn’t simply give up swearing; we should examine our unloving feelings that cause us to swear in the first place.
Lent is an opportunity to put our habits on the examination table, not for bettering ourselves, but for bettering the world with which God has entrusted us. Please, if you’re planning to give up something for Lent, pray hard about it and think about what that sacrifice can do to further the Kingdom. Listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and make this a season where you truly surrender yourself to God, just as Christ surrendered himself to earthly authorities on your behalf 2000 years ago.
Grace and Peace,