Growing in Grace During Lent
February 11, 2016 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
The season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday services and culminates with the celebration of Jesus' resurrection on Easter. Perspectives on Lent are almost as diverse as the number of denominations there are among Christian churches. Some love Lent as a season of humility, confession of sin, repentance, and preparation for celebrating the hope and joy of the resurrection. Others equate Lent with a legalistic works-righteousness practice promoted by the Roman Catholic Church.
The observation of Lent, the six weeks leading up to Easter, seems to have developed in the early church. In the 4th century, after Constantine legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, there was a great influx of converts into the church. Baptism was encouraged and often administered on Easter, reflecting on the new life promised in the resurrection (Rom. 6:4). The leaders of the church wanted to ensure that the new converts were genuine in their faith before baptizing them. So they instituted a six week preparation period. During these weeks the new converts were catechized in the faith and encouraged to fast regularly and give to the poor. An "ancient" form of a discipleship "program."
The trouble comes in when the "program" becomes the chief end and the chief end, namely Jesus Christ, is lost in the process. Perhaps this is why some are wary of observing Lent. Over the centuries this six week preparation for Easter has developed in many ways. All Christians are encouraged to participate, not just new converts. Ashes are applied on Ash Wednesday as a reminder of our humble and frail state. Christians are called to fast from one particular item (food or otherwise) for the entirety of the six weeks. There is a particular focus on repentance and, in some traditions, forms of penitence. And, of course, Friday fish fries! All of these are practiced with the anticipation of celebrating the resurrection.
Humility. Contrition. Fasting. Repentance. Giving to the poor. All of these are commended in Scripture. The danger of engaging with these practices during a special season like Lent is the same danger we face when we practice any spiritual discipline or demonstrate any measure of holiness at any time of the year: self-justification. This creeps into our hearts anytime we begin to think that we can add to or complete our salvation. Consider Jesus' parable in Luke 18:9-14.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
The Pharisee did great things: fasting and giving tithes. But those practices became for him, in his mind, the means by which God accepted him. That's self-justification and that's the risk if fasting and penitence and giving become the chief end and focus of observing Lent.
I would encourage you to regularly (during the six weeks prior to Easter and during the 46 weeks following Easter) practice the spiritual disciplines as a means of growing in grace: Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, giving, meditation, solitude, repentance, etc. Here's a couple of suggestions for guarding your heart from falling into the trap of self-justification:
1. Approach these disciplines as a means to enjoy Christ, not to gain Christ. God freely gives you Christ (Rom. 8:32). We add nothing to our salvation by what we do (Eph. 2:8-9). These practices are means to enjoy all the more the grace God has freely given you. Pray regularly that God would satisfy you through these disciplines (Ps. 90:14).
2. Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 6:1). We do not do these spiritual disciplines for special recognition from others. They are meant to shape and direct our hearts to understand, rest in, and enjoy more and more God's grace for us in Christ. If we practice the disciplines in order to gain approval from others, we are not looking to enjoy Christ but the praise of men.
So, however you approach the season of Lent, "may grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord" (2 Pet. 1:2).