I by no means want to interfere with your lenten plans for giving something up. That is the very least we can do for lenten observance, and it is an important method for teaching our children how to fast as an important spiritual discipline in a culture of constant pleasure seeking and feasting. However, I’d like to suggest that if giving something up is all one has done for lent, then we are missing the most important side of the same coin: once we have given something up for lent, we have created space for taking something up in God’s Name.
I have a friend who had a 365-day-a-year discipline of doing one good turn for another person every day…. every.day. This sort of discipline (with disciple being the root word) creates all sorts of opportunity for God to use us in the lives of others, which is precisely the reason he gave each of us a self in the first place: to serve others in His Name.
So what if we were to create space for God by taking something up after giving something up? We might give up binge-watching Netflix for the fast so that we have the time to take up writing thank you cards to friends, not for anything specific, just a thank you for the friendship, telling them what they mean to us before we end up speaking over their earthly vessel at their funeral. Perhaps instead of looking at our phones at night, we go to bed one hour earlier so that we can wake up one hour earlier to “prayer-walk” the next morning. Perhaps instead of reaching for our phones first thing in the morning, we reach for the Scriptures, and spend time in meditation and prayer journaling after. There are all sorts of things that can be given up that create space for God, but I think the things He likes most are the things we do for others in His Name.
What if we were to give up self-focus altogether? What an extraordinary amount of time that would create for most of us in this culture. Do we have an idolatry of self-focus like everybody else around us in our culture? Here is where we get into the seven deadly vices and the seven virtues with which they correspond. If we struggle with lust and the many different ways that can manifest itself in our society and on the internet, what if we were to fast from it manifesting and instead use that abstinence for worshiping God and adoring Jesus? What might that adoration look like? An easy and free way to do that might be going onto YouTube to look up your favorite worship music whether hymns, Psalms, or spiritual songs, and just keep clicking on the next worship song (with lyrics) that catches your eye. The danger there is that being on YouTube is a distraction that might take you in other directions. The less easy and slightly more expensive way is to create a playlist of songs that you know and can sing along with and some you would like to know on Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora. If you are learning an instrument, perhaps you can spend the time learning worship music so that you can internalize the songs. You’ll be amazed at the power of adoration of Jesus over the power of lust. Set Him before your eyes instead of the alternative. For women, it may be less visual and more subtle sometimes, like romance novels or inappropriate emotional relationships outside one’s marriage. Withdraw your investment from that (fast), and spend the time in adoration, which is the antidote and a spiritual feast.
Perhaps you struggle with gluttony. Many if not most in our culture do. We feast every night, with access in the middle and upper class in this country to every food and fruit at our massive grocery store chains. Even our poor in this country have access, if not always the money, to eating healthy. However, few of us choose to do so. Perhaps by choosing portion sizes that are more appropriate to one human being, we can use the rest of our goods and resources to fill the local food bank to overflowing, just as it says in Isaiah 58 to do. How much money per month would it be if you gave up your daily Starbucks? Donate that to a charity that feeds the poor.
If you struggle with greed, if you have an idolatry of materialism, if you are jealous of the Joneses, perhaps you might see what sort of margin for generosity you might create for yourself and your family. Calculate everything in your budget that is a fixed cost, then calculate the left over. Make a withdrawal of that amount and put it in a large jar. Pray as a family how best to use it for God’s glory. See what need your children might become aware of as a result, and see what sort of margin for generosity they will make for the rest of their lives as they become a joyful giver as a disciple of Jesus. You’ll be amazed at what God will do. If you don’t have the margin because of debt, make sure you are giving a portion of your firstfruits to your local church, and–just for lent–pay the minimum on your debt and use the margin for generosity to get the discipline going where you are more concerned with your beneficiaries than you are with yourself.
Oftentimes sloth comes from exhaustion from overwork. You may have seen me write about this in other articles, about burnout, when you are working so hard because of a performance-based identity that you don’t save any capacity for serving your family at home, the most important relationships in your life getting your leftovers. By over-extending your capacity, you are actually diminishing your capacity and motivation for your primary relationships with God and others. You end up coming home, mentally checking out with whatever favorite method you choose, whether the boob tube or your phone, insulating yourself from relating with your family, and by doing so you are teaching your children to be slothful and to resort to friends online and virtual instead of the people in front of them. You are cultivating a culture, an ecosystem that naturally forms them without intending to do so. So by intention, create boundaries for productivity and boundaries for relaxation that do not include blue screens which exhaust the brain even further. Be intentional, such as “for my first hour awake, I’m going to spend time making breakfast for my kids to sit down and enjoy first thing as a family, instead of waiting to wake them up at the very last second for school and rushing through a standing breakfast or making them take breakfast in the car.” If your whole family is doing teleworking and virtual learning, set severe boundaries on screen time, make sure you create margins for play together–board games and such–and perhaps create family times of reading together, whether everyone is just sitting together and reading something different or whether you’re going through a book together as a family. The key to diminishing sloth is by maximizing productive hours, with the root word of productive being “produce,” or fruit. Being a good steward of the time God has given us means to be fruitful for His Kingdom, not merely being a productive widget in the commodification culture of the global economy.
If you are angry, wrathful, and vengeful all of the time, perhaps your diet of the 24-hour news cycle that stirs your spirit into a frenzy isn’t the healthiest. We might recall in the Lord’s prayer that we are forgiven as we forgive others, the block in the logjam being our unforgiveness of others, whether something in our past personal history or something in more current events. Some of us can’t even forgive Republicans or Democrats for merely holding to a different political philosophy than us, whether to over-centralize resources in government or over-decentralize resources away from the federal system…. and remember, sometime in the last 160 years, the parties traded speeches. I know friends in Rwanda who have forgiven those who murdered their family members, and we have trouble forgiving the wait staff at the restaurant or the barista at the coffee shop for a lack of expediency in service or getting our order wrong. One need only go onto social media to see just how angry everybody seems to be…. the antidote is mercy and forgiveness, and patience with people and with God. If we are waiting on the Lord with entitlement to receive the things we want, we may be disappointed with His definitive answers that are designed to relieve us of our entitlement mentality and replace it with His own will for us and for others as a grace. When we give up the hardcore desire to have our needs met, and drop all of our white-knuckled idolatries, then we have created space for Him to turn us into those who meet needs in His Name, and as a side effect, He will meet our needs and our spiritual cup of joy and gladness will be filled to overflowing. Make a steady diet of waiting on the Lord, patient for Him to answer with good gifts (better than you had imagined) for His children, and you will find yourself less angry, less vengeful, and generous in spirit even toward rivals and enemies.
The antidote for envy, rampant in our 24-7 advertising culture, is kindness. Envy is a constantly exhausting activity. Kindness is a state of being that is cultivated by God’s Spirit within you. This is all a difference between being a carnally driven Christian or a Spirit driven Christian. If our flesh–soul and body in the New Testament biblical conversation–and its cravings are dominant in our lives, we are missing out on the abundant life that God would be producing in us through and by His Spirit, one of the greatest gifts there is: intimacy with the Living God. THAT brings a contentedness that would crowd out envy. But the desires of our flesh that have death-dealing power are given the quarter within us to dominate the rest of us. This can be displaced by the Spirit affording us the same spiritual power that raised Jesus from the dead to overcome our flesh from within our very selves IF the Spirit of God resides within us. If He does not, there is zero hope of overcoming the flesh. This is not a battle that can be won in our own strength. We lose every time without the Spirit. However, WITH the Spirit within us, we have access to spiritual fruit, spiritual power, the keys of the Kingdom, and the ear of the King as adopted sons and daughters who can waltz right into the throne room of grace and ask for anything. Anything for which we ask on behalf of others in His Name and according to His will is granted… perhaps not in our timing, for He knows how best to handle others in their sanctification process, but He loves to give good gifts to others. Being moved with His compassion for others by His Spirit within us whom we have given greater space…. this will release the floodgates and reduce the logjam of envy to an obliterated obstacle.
Finally–but firstly–we have humility in exchange for pride. I include this last because it is first. Why should humility be the rarest commodity among Christians if our Christ was willing to “Philippians 2” Himself? If the author and perfecter of our faith came in such humility, how is it that we should think that we are above our master? He got on a trajectory in which the 2nd person of the Trinity emptied Himself of all that to which He was entitled, and because He did so, even to the point of death on a cross, being obedient to the Father so that we might be saved…. well, the only proportional response to God giving us Creation, giving us time and space in history that is ours to steward, giving us the shed blood of His Son, pouring His Spirit into us, giving us adoption as heirs through hope, giving us the fruit of His Spirit, giving us the keys to His Kingdom…. the only proportional response is total: all that we are, all that we have, at His disposal, to do with as He wishes. But how do we move from pride to humility? How do we get from here to there? For some of us, it will not come “naturally,” it will have to be a rebirth induced by the Spirit over which we have little control except our complete surrender. Humility comes through drawing near to God. Nearness to God induces humility within us, for we recognize ourselves when we are exposed by His light, and it would be humiliating to the point of obliterating death were it not for seeing the way He loves us. That brings us to a place of neither pride nor humiliation, but humility. We have not loved Him with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not loved as we have been loved by Him, and this should cause us to bend the knee in His throne room in recognition that He is the perfect King, and we are His imperfect creatures. But by the power of His Spirit within us, we can be re-aimed at a new mark, and He cannot miss, as He is without sin. He always hits His mark.
What are some practical ways to induce humility as a disciplined disciple? They are to be found by putting the other virtues into practice: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, and kindness/compassion. Notice each of these is directed away from self and toward love of God and others. Some believe that “Love God, and love neighbor as self” means that love of self is a necessary step, and while this is true, some of us define these terms incorrectly. Love of self is to see self as God sees us, as a vessel for His love for others. We are to love neighbor as though neighbor WERE self, and that is what a self has been given to us for. Ask God to break our hearts with His love for those with whom we come into contact, beginning with our actual physical neighbors.
Let’s read Isaiah 58 again to remind ourselves that it is not a bunch of noisy liturgical observances that He is after, but our hearts turned outward from self toward the needs of others in His Name. A true fast is a fast from lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Love of self is not to give our leftovers to others after we ourselves have been satiated, for that is the offering of Cain. The offering of Able is acceptable to God because He gave His firstfruits. God deserves our firstfruits in worship, and if we offer the space of our inner selves to God to fill to overflowing with His love for others, we will find out what love of self truly means: to be directed in our aim outward from self toward the needs of others.
Perhaps this lent, we can give up merely giving up chocolate, and we can take up creating space for God to meet the needs of others in His name through all the means at our disposal, especially these empty jars of clay that He can fill to overflowing.