It has been a custom for centuries in so many churches and for so many Chris-tians to take on a special Lenten discipline. May I suggest a four-part Lenten discipline for you, something that has worked for me and for many people to whom I have suggested it?
1. Give Up Something You Like
One year I gave up spaghetti (my favorite food) and another year a favorite television program. Friends have given up their morning drive-through coffee order, their wearing of their favorite after shave lotion, and their nightly bowl of popcorn. Unless your diet says you shouldn’t eat or drink a certain thing, there is nothing wrong with indulging (in moderation) in any of these items. We give them up for Lent for other reasons.
First is to make sure we can be in control of our behaviors — by God’s grace, the help of others and our own efforts. One of the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s activity in our lives is “self-control” (Galatians 5:23). If we cannot control our demanding these simple pleasures, how can we be in control of things that really matter? A Lenten discipline of giving up some-thing harmless can alert us to how much we really do need discipline in our lives.
Second is to remind us of what Christ gave up for us, His dying on the Cross to pay the penalty price for our sins so that by His grace, received by our faith, we can be saved. I remember that year I gave up pasta. Each time I either asked my wife to make spaghetti for supper, or else I decided to have it as a snack, she or I stopped, noting I had given it up.
Most of the time I then remembered what Christ had given up for me and I stopped to meditate on this and offer Him a prayer of thanksgiving. Of course “giving up something for Lent” can be a superficial, spiritually dead activity devoid of true Christian meaning, and it can be foolishly viewed as a way of earning points with God. But any other-wise good Christian activity can be done for the wrong reasons. If we are going to give up something we like for Lent, let’s make sure we do it for the right reasons.
2. Give Up Something That’s Wrong
Lent, like New Year’s Day, or a special service of recommitment to Christ, or an “altar call” at the end of a service, can be a wonderful time to turn from sin. But why give up just one sin for Lent?
Of course we are to turn from all our sins, but on a practical basis, most of us can work on only one or two particular things at once. It takes humbling one’s self before the Lord and admitting our need to change. It takes hard work to change our ways. It takes regular prayer and participation in Holy Communion for divine guidance and grace. It takes ongoing help from others. It takes our diligence to recognize those situations in which we’re far more likely to sin and what we’re to do to lessen that likelihood. It takes our sustained efforts to monitor how we’re doing in our spiritual growth and honestly to admit when we’re not there yet. It takes our not giving up when we stumble.
There are people who deny all of this, asserting that because of some dramatic encounter they had with God they’re perfectly holy now! Usually they’ve either significantly lowered God’s standards or are blind to how far short they still fall. Because real, sustained spiritual growth is difficult, it’s likely a person can work on only one or two sins at a time. But this Lent, go to work on those one or two! When Lent is over, keep working, and then add one more sin to work on.
As Part of This: Confess Your Sins
When a person does not confess his sins things do not go well. Psalm 32:3 tells us, “When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Proverbs 28:13a tells us “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper . . . .” I’ve seen it again and again over the years, people who hold onto their sins head either to increasing self-loathing or towards denial and pride.
We often need help in confessing our sins to God which is why Scripture tells us, “Confess your sins to one another . . . that you may be made whole” (James 5:16). Do not dismiss this as advice you do not need. It isn’t advice. This Scripture verse is a commandment. Do not dismiss it because you once had a bad experience with confessing sin to some-one else. Do not dismiss it because it seems to be the practice of a denomination different from yours. It’s a Biblical command. (For much more on this see my book Christian Healing, chapter 5.)
What are the advantages of such a confession? To quote a great old document, “. . . that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith” (Book of Common Prayer, page 317). Confess to someone wise and godly this Lent.
3. Take Some Things On
A third Lenten discipline is to take some things on. (Let me give you two things which begin with the letter “T” and continue with a third “T” in the next part of this article.)
Time. Devote some extra time to an additional or extended devotional practice. Say the office of Compline before you go to bed or attend an extra worship service each week. Fast a meal a week. Go on a retreat. Read through the Gospel of John. Read a good devotional book. (Our web site lists several books we recommend. You can order them from us. See the section, “Good books for Lent.”)
Talent. Undertake a volunteer project over and above what you normally do. Ask your pastor if there’s some project he’d like you to do for the church or a family in need. Volunteer a shift a week at a feeding program or homeless shelter.
4. Give Some Things Away
Treasure. Above your normal church tithe and regular charitable donations send some additional money to one or more godly causes. Every other year I set aside some money for special Lenten giving. In the weeks prior I prayerfully discern which ministries I’ll be supporting, and during Lent I also pray for those ministries every day. Give away a valued possession. Jesus tells us if we have two coats give one to a person who has none. And, we are to share our food (Luke 3:10-11). Sacrifice as obedience and as a way to thank Jesus Christ Who sacrificed for us.
The three Ts of Time, Talent, Treasure
You may find, once Lent is over, you will want to keep some of these practices of time, talent and treasure going.
Get Ready For Lent
Lent starts Ash Wednesday, March 9. (Easter is very late this year.) Spend the days leading up to Ash Wednesday discerning what your Lenten discipline will be this year. Pray through what I’ve written here and through suggestions others have made about a Lenten discipline and see what God would have you do. Run what you think God is telling you by a few spiritually mature friends to make sure what you’re thinking of undertaking is realistic. (It’s discouraging to attempt something too big, only to fail. On the other hand, you should be challenged if you’re at-tempting things too superficial.)
Then, write down your Lenten goals and review them daily to see how you’re doing. Perhaps ask a few others to pray for you and hold you accountable, and do the same for them. The purpose of Lent is not Lent! It’s not so we can feel proud or superior or so we can leverage God to do what we want. It is to grow in Christ and prepare for the celebration of His resurrection. +