“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s come to that time of year where, in the Christian realm, asking this question is almost as common as “How are you doing?” Until recent years only my cousins asked me this question. temporarily forgetting that I wasn’t Catholic.
When I got to chapel at my Christian liberal arts college on Ash Wednesday back in 2012, I didn’t even know it was Ash Wednesday. I’d grown up thinking that it was a strictly catholic tradition since my church didn’t practice Lent, and my cousins’ church did. When the chaplain got on stage and introduced Reverend Charlie Brown, I was taken by surprise. Firstly, by this man’s name. I mean, who, in real life, is named Charlie Brown? And secondly, by the fact that there I sat, with a Catholic priest on stage before me, explaining the holy day I never thought I’d personally recognize.
He spoke of preparation, of recognizing our immense humanity and mortality, of reverence to God’s immense divinity and immortality. Of Ash Wednesday being much more than ashes. Lent is a lot less about what we give up or add to your life, and a lot more about the mindset with which we approach the process. When we do anything for the Lord, the motive should be honoring Him and caring for His people, not to get spiritual bragging rights. In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses this idea of spiritual humility.
”Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets… to be honored by others… Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you,” (Matthew 6:1-6).
Jesus’ message is clear: that which we do for the Lord we’re to do anonymously or in secret, so that God alone is glorified. Sacrifice and prayer are not things we should do to impress others.
We so often fall victim to a sinful extreme of the human need to be seen and acknowledged. This is such an easy pit to fall into, and it starts twisting Lent’s true purpose.
When Paul writes to the church in Philippi, he urges them to, “do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like the stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life,” (Philippians 2:14-18).
Lent’s purpose is preparing us for the Easter celebration by turning our focus from our human desires to the Lord’s calling and work in our lives. We give up something that, though not be inherently negative, has become an idol in our lives.