Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Giving "Up" vs. Giving "In"

Today is, apparently, the first day of Lent, which is also known as Ash Wednesday. (Actually, I was reminded of this earlier this morning when I met a friend for breakfast at a local diner and a smattering of the patrons had smudge marks on their foreheads. I nearly said something to the first lady I saw...awkward!) The truth is, growing up in my particular Christian tradition, there was no difference between Ash Wednesday and "any other" Wednesday. Honestly, I wouldn't have recognized the beginning of Lent if it walked up and introduced itself to me. It has only been recently that I've come to know anything about the religious significance of the Lenten season.

So, I'm probably the least qualified person to say anything about Lent. I am not going to attempt an explanation of it nor am I going to present an argument against it. I'm simply going to ask a question. (Yea right, Dan!)

Okay, before I come to my question I think it is important to have at least a little understanding of the the religious purpose or significance behind Lent. Adherents of the Roman Church, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and many Presbyterians and even some Baptists (!) all observe Lent. (Yes, that means that if you don't observe Lent, then you are in the minority of "Christendom".) Lent comes from a Latin word which means "fortieth" and was used to identify the period of forty days whereby the religiously minded person dedicated themselves towards penitential preparation through such acts as fasting, prayer, penance, charity giving, and confession. This period of time varies for some traditions but for the majority it seems to run from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. Many have written about the relationship of Jesus' forty days of testing in the wilderness as an (the?) example for the religious observance of Lent. So...that basically exhausts everything I know about Lent. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The bottom line, I've come to learn, is that Lent is primarily about demonstrating to God one's religious sincerity by giving up something.

In recent years I've heard of people giving up all sorts of crazy things for Lent. People give up anything from chocolate to cigarettes, or even coffee! People give up watching a certain television program, from watching any television, or attending any entertainment at all. The idea is that, for a definite period of time, one is to show their devotion to God by deleting something that they enjoy, something they regularly engage in, from their life. Sort of a religious "addition-by-subtraction" experiment.

But (finally!) here is my question: Is God really more concerned with what we "give up" than He is with what we "give in"? In other words, is God somehow pleased with man for showing a small amount of self-restraint for a short period of time? Is God's cosmic ego somehow stroked by the religious gymnastics people perform (like not smoking for forty days)? Simply put, is our relationship with God based on negatives (things we don't do) or positives (things we do)?

It seems to me, the more I come to know the God of the Bible, that He is far more concerned about us "giving in"--fully, totally, completely--to His life and will than He is about us temporarily "giving up" something as a ritual of worship. Even though I think there is a glimmer of godliness that may be found in Lent, that it certainly is Biblical to humble oneself in the sight of the Lord intentionally, practically, and genuinely, I still can't help but feel broken-hearted for all the people who actually believe that not watching American Idol for forty days is going to show up on their final record. God wants us to yield to His wisdom all the time because that is when we are most blessed.

Micah 6:8 beautifully says, "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." I could be wrong, but I don't believe that I am, God desires that we demonstrate our commitment to Him by doing His will--loving others, helping others, serving others, being truthful, tender, and honest--not simply by "giving up" something. I guess I am just learning more and more each day that true righteousness and life in God is a matter of losing myself in God's love, way, and will--all day, every day...On the other hand, I suppose it wouldn't hurt my spiritual walk to give up ESPN for a few weeks...Nah!!!