Cross? What Cross?
"Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." — Matthew 16:24, 25
Most protestant denominations don’t observe Lent, maybe because they’re afraid somebody will accuse them of being Roman Catholics. Still, I think that’s a risk worth running for the gain of setting aside a special season to ponder the sinfulness of our sin, the righteousness of Christ, and the grace of God in our salvation. In the Book of Common Prayer, the collect for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, sets the tone for the season:
"Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou has made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Usually those who observe Lent fast from something for the entire forty days. It might be meat, or alcohol, or chocolate, but something dear and pleasant to them. That doesn’t mean that enjoying these things is evil in itself, but abstaining from them for a while relieves us from that distraction to our service to God and teaches us to subdue our flesh. The collect for the First Sunday in Lent makes this point:
"Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen."
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
I think most Christians today (me, at any rate) find it hard to plumb the meaning of fasting. What is it supposed to do? Surely we, who depend on God’s grace alone and not on our works, can’t earn points with God by denying ourselves something for a day or week or 40 days. Can’t you just see the angels sitting on the clouds, watching the prayers pass up to heaven.
"Whoa, Israphael, did you see that one? Serious, I’m telling ya—Riding on an eight day fast and knee bruises."
No, I don’t think it works like that, but from reading the Scriptures anyone can see that prayer together with fasting adds some different dimension to the believer’s request. When the disciples fail to cast out an evil spirit, they ask Jesus why they couldn’t do it. He replies that it was (chiefly) because of their unbelief. However, he adds that "this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." (Matthew 17:19-21). What different dimension does fasting add to prayer? Perhaps fasting removes the distractions of the world and concentrates our minds on the subject of our prayer so that we can more wholeheartedly give ourselves to the task.
Is there any value in denying yourself something? Is it just abstractly good for us, to make us tough? Does it harden us into spiritual Marines, low-crawling across broken glass on their bare knees? Or does cultivating the habit of saying NO to ourselves teach us Christian self-control?
In C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the hero Ransom is wandering on a new world and runs into a plant that exudes giant bubbles. When he runs his face into them they emit delicious odours and flavours. He realises that, as delightful as they are, he can’t just stand there the rest of his life enjoying them. The danger is that by overusing a perfectly legitimate delight in the physical world we forget our duty to God and unfit ourselves to serve as his faithful soldiers.
For while God has created all the good things of this material world for our delight and pleasure, overusing them can seduce us from our Christian duty. They are rest stops on the path, but they are not the path.
THE STUMBLING BLOCK
Over and over in the Scriptures I keep stumbling over this self-denial and warfare against our sinful flesh, and it makes me nervous. Why? Because all of the great church fathers – from Augustine to Calvin and Luther and beyond -- understood the necessity of self-denial, but the church today has forgotten about it. The church has plenty to say about feeling good about yourself, and about grace and doing good works (if convenient) and healing and prosperity and various spiritual pyrotechnics, but very little about taking up your cross and denying yourself. In Jay Adams’ The War Within: A Biblical Strategy for Spiritual Warfare (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1989; out of print) I came across this indictment of the church:
"Why has a significant segment of the church ignored or suppressed this all-too-important biblical truth [that Christians are at war with their sinful flesh]? And what must be done about it? … The same forces that have spawned an effete Christianity that shuns confrontation, glorifies self, and represents Jesus as a Saviour who can add a dimension to your happiness (rather than one who will radically change your life) are at work. This cowardly self-indulgence of which I am speaking has been largely the result of doctrinal defection that fails to grapple with the hard truths of God’s word, or explains them away. At present it seems that the mentality of an over-prosperous Christianity is very much like that of the first century Judaism that rejected Christ because it wanted the crown without the cross." (P. 8)
"But the war within is fought invisibly in the depths of one’s soul – where no one else can see or fully understand all its dimensions. It is a war that no Christian may escape and one that every Christian must fight. You are in a battle every day if you know Christ as your Saviour. No one else can fight your battles for you." (P. 9)
TRAPS & POTHOLES
When we try to "use such abstinence, that, our flesh [is] subdued to the Spirit" all sorts of traps yawn before us, traps of lawlessness or legalism.
On the one hand our fatal fleshly bent toward legalism wants to make us feel "special" for denying ourselves. We want to tote up points with God. But if fasting results in anything besides the humility of holiness, what good is it? Fasting is perverted and becomes not a means to the end of serving and honouring God, but a self-glorifying end in itself. The extreme of this is asceticism, killing all joy by fasting for its own sake.
On the other hand there is the trap of lawlessness, that uses part of the truth of Scriptures to overthrow the whole truth. "We’re under grace not law!" lawlessness cries, and refuses to join battle with the sin in his own flesh. This is a temptation particularly suited to our self-centered, self-indulgent age – and of mankind’s nature.
So what good is a yearly observance of self-denial like Lent? Isn’t that just superstition and self-glorification? Not at all. We are commanded to worship God one day out of seven because our fleshly memories are so bad that we need that weekly reminder. In the same way, a yearly period of self-denial helps us remember to whom we belong, and that the purpose of our lives is not to please ourselves, but him.
Here lies a deep and impenetrable mystery that I believe but can never fully understand. From start to finish, God saves us. He sovereignly changes our hearts, puts in us a new heart to obey him, and then sovereignly conforms us to the image of Christ. Yet without any contradiction, we are still responsible to "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling." We pray God daily to "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" expecting that God will deliver us. At the same time, we are responsible to deliver ourselves from evil by saying NO to our flesh, the world, and the devil.
But it isn’t as if God had left us as orphans to wrestle with these monsters. No, he gives us his good Holy Spirit, speaking his will through his Word, to lead and mould us. In Christ, his will for us is not failure, but victory. The warfare against our flesh, the struggle to deny ourselves, is not an option, but Christ’s direct command. It is so important that Christ tells us if our eye offends us, it is better to pluck it out than to allow it to lead us into sin. (Matthew 18:9) "[Pursue] peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14) Can you imagine any more stringent and pointed commandment?
Still, more lies here for the Christian than sour asceticism and chewing on ashes and gravel, for only through this warfare can we find peace. The same Christ who orders us so sternly to battle also calls our souls to rest in him:
"Come unto me, all ye that labour, and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
"Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
"For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."