Earlier this week, I was reading the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, chapters 34 and 35, which together have an interesting contrast. In chapter 34, with Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians, King Zedekiah ordered the people to release all of their Hebrew slaves, seemingly with the motivation of appeasing God. However, soon the people were returned to slavery. In chapter 35, this behavior is contrasted with the Rechabites, who, for about 200 years, had obeyed their ancestors’ vow to not drink wine, or build houses, but to live in tents. God tells Jeremiah to call some Rechabites together, pour them some wine, and offer it to them. But they refused to drink, citing their ancestral vow. The two stories together illustrate that this family could obey a stricter code than God’s, from a lesser authority (their human ancestor), and on less-important issues. The Rechabites are an admirable example to the rest of God’s people, and a testament to what the covenant faithfulness of God to us looks like.
What does this story have to do with Lent? This metaphor from the Apostle Paul provides some help:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” – 1 Corinthians 9:24-26
Paul says discipline and self-control are valuable in the same way that training is valuable to an athlete – they bring us closer to obtaining an objective that is valuable to us. To those who love God, being a disciple will require discipline, and vows are a form of discipline.
Lent is celebrated many different ways by many different people but is generally seen as a time to practice spiritual discipline as a way to greater awareness of, gratefulness toward, and/or obedience to, God. Often something is given up for the 40 days of Lent, which makes it in some ways similar to the vows of the Rechabites, or the Nazirite vow taken by Samson (or by his parents) in the book of Judges.
However, if we do not value the prize – God Himself – nothing we give up for Lent will make us – or God Himself – happy. Lent will not help us love Him, or our neighbors, more. Like the Israelites who flip-flopped on slavery, treating it as a bargaining chip with God and not as an act of faithfulness to Him, wrong motivations can lead to cycles of disappointment. But, for those in Christ, the prize is worth every ounce of effort we can put into it. Discipline during Lent can be like lifting weights for an athlete, strengthening them, and enabling them to better compete in their sport, but discipline during Lent for the sake of self-denial or for trying to impress God is to aim too low. True religion to God is not a trade – He has already given us everything in Christ Jesus and we can’t earn more. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” – Matthew 5:5
I’ll close with this long quote C.S. Lewis’ sermon, The Weight of Glory:
“The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
[Note: Today’s post idea came to me this morning, based on the beginning of Lent and tying together a couple of things I’ve recently read. While not really part of the Beatitudes series, this post seemed fitting. However, with Return To Office beginning, Lent has already begun by the time I could write this!]