Not being numbered among those who observe the days, I was somehow under the impression that Lent was going to start any day now. But checking with Google (another thing the apostolic church did not have), I find that we are still a month out. Far from being Fat Tuesday, this might as well be any old Tuesday, which it is.
But since we have a month, here are some pre-Lenten observations. For those of you who don’t observe Lent, I have not found any compelling reasons why you should start, and so you all may continue to wait patiently for my next post on Obama. There’s a four-year penitential season for you. But for those who do observe Lent . . . here are some cautions from an outsider. There is a wrong way to do this — and naturally it is a way that seemeth right unto a (devout) man. Jesus did say that His disciples would fast after His departure (Mark 2:19-20). He did not say that they would fast as though He had never come.
Think of it this way. There is a natural “veer” that conservative Christians have, in which strict is assumed to be biblical. There is a trap here, and allow me to illustrate it this way. Suppose you have an eager young Christian, about ready to graduate from law school. Suppose he has different conversations with his fellow church members in the koinonia chit chat time after church. He has these conversations simply for the sake of making this illustration of mine go.
In these conversations, he tells the folks that he has a job offer from the DA’s office, and that he is thinking about becoming a prosecutor. He also tells them that, as it turns out, he is also considering a job working for the public defender. Now, this is a church that believes the Bible, all of it. After these conversations, a number of people he has talked to come back to him later, asking him to reconsider whether or not the job he is considering is consistent with his Christian profession. Which job are all of them talking about?
Right. They are all worried that he might wind up defending the guilty, and they hope instead he takes the job where he would get to smoke the bad guys. They are worried that he will take the job that describes Jesus very well, and want him instead to take the job that suits the devil exactly. Jesus is our Defender (1 Jn. 2:1-2), and the devil is our prosecutor and accuser (Rev. 12:10). The Holy Spirit is the Comforter (John 16:7), and the devil’s very name means accusation.
Now I know that accusation can be done honorably, and that there are times when somebody has to do it (2 Sam. 12:7; Matt. 14:3-4). The devil is an abuser of it, as of all things, and there are ways for the devil to get into defense work also, in such a way as to clear the guilty, which God does not do (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18). Of course we want godly prosecutors. I know that, and rejoice in it, but it is still striking that conservative Christians are so natural with accusation, and it is so hard for them to rise to the defense.
It is worth pointing out that the godly examples of accusation above were instances where the one accused had the power of life and death over the one who brought the charge to him — and not the other way around. Prophetic accusation is far more suited to the powerless than to the powerful.
And so what does this have to do with Lent? Just as the devil is the god of accusation, so also he is the god of giving stuff up. No Christian ought ever to fast or abstain from anything until he knows in his bones what the doctrine of demons smells like (1 Tim. 4:1-5; Col. 2:20-23). There are godly fasts (Acts 13:2; 1 Cor. 7:5), and ungodly ones (Matt. 6:16). No Christian ought ever to take up this discipline unless he knows the nature of the chasm that separatese the two. There is an old children’s joke that illustrates this principle well: “What is the difference between an elephant and a mailbox?” “I don’t know.” “Well, I sure am not going to send you to mail a letter for me!” For those who do not grasp what I am talking about here, they are the ones who ought not mail any letters. They ought to give up Lent for Lent.
But again, God wants us to give certain things up too — things like sin, and self-righteousness, and superstition, and a number of other things that begin with s. He does not want us to give up chocolate, which begins with a c.
So the problem is not that some consider Lent a penitential season. The problem is what many have come to think penitence actually is. For those who observe Lent the way C.S. Lewis would have done, foregoing pleasure to make room for joy, the world could use many more such. For those who simply observe it as part of the cultural furniture of their world — that’s how they grew up — I have better things to do than to be critical of such customs. There are times when I see someone crossing himself, and I don’t think “popish superstition” at all. I just think the third baseman wants a hit. As Freud once put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
The problem I am discussing arises routinely among those who want to be serious Christians. Who could be against that? Well, me. There are, the pastor said, huge problems that serious Christians cause in the church. The answer is to be serious about grace — but there are ways gum that up too.
So it is important to conclude with the observation that this difficulty, this impulse I am discussing is a human one, not an Anglican one. There may be numerous TR Presbyterians cheering me on at this point (for am I not smiting Lent?), but I could write virtually the same post, excoriating the very same evil, with a perverted sabbatarianism in the crosshairs instead. Maybe the Lenten TRs prefer to do Lent once a week, so that there is no time to build up a head of steam for a Mardi Gras every Friday. That would be too much fun for everybody.
So beware. The devil loves it when he is the god of Lent, or of the sabbath, or of anything else we think we are offering to God.