Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why Self-Denial Matters

I am a fan of Lent, the 40 days (not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Resurrection Sunday. Technically there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Resurrection Sunday, but historically Sundays are not days of fasting, because they are days when we celebrate the presence of the bridegroom with us. It is a time of self-denial, fasting, and repentance. Some traditions have three main pillars of lent: prayer, fasting, and service. There are a lot of articles and ideas about fasting and what to deny ourselves floating around the internet, so I won't try to reproduce them.

Self-denial is not a popular theme in our world today. Advertisements and stores urge us to buy new products to support our economy and find happiness...until the next update or upgrade comes out. Yet, Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, and follow Him (Matthew 10:38, Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

Lent is not about some masochistic delight in denying ourselves. Isaiah 58 records that God is not pleased when we fast and humble ourselves but also continue to exploit and fight with others. God wants our fast to fight against injustice and oppression. Instead of just denying ourselves food, He wants us to share our food with the hungry. God wants us to shelter the wanderer and to clothe the naked. If we give up shopping, can we also donate some of our bounty of clothes or could we donate the money we would have spent to distribute clothes to the naked?

Lent is not a time to shed those extra pounds from Christmas dinner or to build our bank account. Fasting can lead to losing weight and saving money, but that's not God's purpose. We aren't to replace one bad habit with an equally bad habit. We aren't even to cut out one bad habit for our benefit. We are to deny ourselves to grow closer to God and to recognize that the people around us are also made in God's image.

What might fasting look like in today's world, through the eyes of Isaiah 58?
-If we give up coffee, soda, or other beverages, what if we also gave money to build wells in impoverished nations?
-If we give up social media or other entertainment, how can we grow closer to God? Could we read devotionals, pray, study the Bible, or share hospitality with a neighbor?
-If we give up chocolate or junk food, will we also donate food to the food pantry?

In the 'glorious land of opportunity', it is counter-cultural to deny ourselves anything. It is odd to save up for a big purchase when credit cards are so easily accessible. But giving myself my every desire removes my dependence on Jehovah Jirah (the God who Provides). Denying myself reminds that that Liz o' the niche is not lord of her life, but rather, that I serve a Savior who demands my everything.

When I reach heaven's gates, I want to be told "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come and share in your master's happiness." (Matthew 25:21) I want to have used my resources and gifts in a way that brought glory to God throughout my life.

I don't want to hear, "Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you." (James 5:1-6)

I don't want to one day look in the eyes of my brothers and sisters and hear them say, "You chose desserts over feeding us while we were starving. You chose expensive beverages while we were dying of thirst. You chose to put more clothes in an already full closet while we were shivering with cold. You prayed that we would be warm and well-fed, but did nothing about our needs (James 2:15-17). You saw us in need and refused to help; how can you say that God's love was in you (1 John 3:17)?"

By choosing to deny myself, by becoming less in a world of self-glorification, I can better care for the least of these and by doing so, better care for Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:31-46)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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