American Christianity has become so worldly, to use an old-fashioned word, that believers of an earlier age would barely recognize many of us as followers of Christ.
The ancient spiritual practices of extended prayer, fasting and silence are rare in a culture addicted to constant sensory stimulation. Abstaining from pleasures and entertainments for the purpose of holiness is rarer still.
Voluntary poverty and self-denial in our day sound so … medieval.
They’re actually a lot older than that. “Do not love the world nor the things of the world,” wrote John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, to first-century Christians. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15,16, NASB).
On the surface, that statement seems to contradict Jesus, who said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).
The difference: God loves the world with a holy and selfless passion. Our love, without His Spirit, is unholy and selfish.
The unholy love John warned against emanates from “people who love themselves, and who love things without regard to God,” wrote Francois Fenelon, a 17th-century spiritual master. “When do we show that we love the world? When we are jealous of authority. When we love a reputation that we are not worthy of. When we spend idle time in the company of others. When we look for comforts that magnify the flesh. When we are weak and fainthearted in our Christian practices. When we do not take care to study the truths of the Gospel.”
Many Christians no longer follow the traditional church calendar. Evangelicals in particular are wary of the time-encrusted rituals of a season such as Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Lent has lost much of its meaning and solemnity even in the liturgical churches. Church members, if they still observe the season at all, often go through the motions of giving up some vice or beloved habit (double cheeseburgers, say), then revert immediately to unrestrained indulgence as soon as the 40 days are up.
That’s not the true spirit of Lent, which calls Christians to prayer, self-denial, self-examination and repentance. Think of Christ in the desert — fasting, praying and resisting the devil as He prepared for His mission on earth. If you can’t handle 40 days, can you devote one day, perhaps two or three, to the undivided pursuit of God?
Rightly observing Lent in our hearts is about loving God more. If we do that, loving ourselves less will be a natural result.
“As you stand before God, think about the mercy He has shown you, the enlightenment He has given you … the pitfalls of this world from which He has kept you safe,” Fenelon recommended. “Think about the crosses He has entrusted to you so that you may become a living sacrifice, because they are clear signs of His love. Let your gratefulness for the past inspire you with trust for the future. Be persuaded that He has loved you too much not to love you still. ...
“God has taken away the soft and comfortable things from your life. Why? Because you need to be humbled and to come to know yourself; because in vain you have sought elsewhere for help and comfort.”
If God has yet to remove the “soft and comfortable” things from your life, what if you voluntarily gave some of them to Him as an act of love and obedience?
When we love Him more, we love others more, particularly those who wander in darkness. It’s amazing how a heart like that of Jonah — who wanted to see Nineveh destroyed — can be transformed into the heart of God, who was passionately concerned about the 120,000 lost souls of that city.
A return to the true observance of Lent in our hearts could be a powerful impetus for missions, which is the lifting of God’s great name among all the nations.
Hosea, the prophet of a God heartbroken over the unfaithfulness of His people, delivered a beautiful Lenten appeal long before the beginning of Lent. Let’s make it our prayer:
“Come, let us return to the Lord,
For He has torn us, but He will heal us,
He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.
He will revive us after two days;
He will raise us up on the third day,
That we may live before Him.
So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3, NASB).