I was recently listening to a Christian radio station with my kids – safe for the whole family, you know – and the DJ was talking to his cohort about Lent. As you may know, Lent is the time period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. It is 40 days (not including Sunday’s) in which, historically, new church converts prepared for their Easter baptism. But later in history the church used the time to prepare itself for the celebration of Easter. It is historically a time of deprivation, repentance, and fasting. With Ash Wednesday past and several of us engaged in Lenten deprivation, I was curious to hear what this guy would say from his bully pulpit.
He started to explain that for him Lent wasn’t really about depriving himself of something nor was it about preparation for Easter. Rather it was personal – about being more focused on what he’s doing. His focus: personal devotions – Bible study. He had not been too consistent or faithful, he said, and so Lent was when he was really going to buckle down and get ‘er done. So, no deprivation, rather earnest focus and voila: he has his Lenten plan! It was interesting to note that he saw Lent very personally as a time to buckle down and just do it!
I have two problems with this. First, this is just what this guy should be doing year round. Any college student engaged in some college ministry could tell you that we should be in the Word regularly. Sure, Lent provoked this guy to return to this discipline and that’s probably a good thing. But, shouldn’t it have provoked him to this discipline simply because he should be doing it? And then provoke him still to a real Lenten practice? Far from deprivation and preparation, this guy resolved to do what he should do – and he thought he was doing something praiseworthy. Here in the American church we have forgotten that obedience is our obligation according to Luke 17:10; that’s another post….
Set aside for the moment that this guy’s observance of Lent looks completely different from the historic church’s intent with Lent going back centuries (our American penchant for re-writing history to make us look good here in the present is subject for another day). When did we in America begin to think that we were doing something extraordinary by simply doing what God commands?
Interestingly (and secondly), the radio-dude exemplifies something that we need to see about ourselves. The way he presented himself on the radio, for him, Lent was really about him. It was a tool that he was going to use for his own spiritual self-help. He needs to be a better him, so Lent provides the opportunity for that to happen. Sounds like a good plan, right? Isn’t that a very practical and useful way to do things? We underestimate that at some point, practical and useful can become ungodly – maybe even from the beginning. The ungodly thought process goes like this:
- I’ve not been reading the Bible; I need to start. “God please help me.”
My problem + God’s help = my success. You could substitute many things in for “my problem” like “my troubled marriage” or “my pitiful parenting” or “my harsh communication.” In this line of thinking, God is our greatest tool; He is the best and strongest means to an end.
What end? Typically that end is guilt-free or worry-free living. For many of us, what’s the greatest trouble with our failures? In other words, what’s our biggest problem with our failures? Isn’t it usually how they make us feel about ourselves? Unfortunately, we are most often content to moan about what our failures mean to us rather than how they may grieve the Lord.
One way to check ourselves is to ask: is God is really necessary to be more consistent in reading the Bible? Can’t you just arrange your schedule so you have time? Set an alarm? Get accountability? Pledge to teach a passage? Take medication? Seriously, do we really need God to read more consistently? Here’s what C.S. Lewis said about this:
I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.
Radio-Man Stan’s (not his real name) consideration of Lent and his use of the time highlights what so much of the American church thinks about God and Christ: tools for us to use to better ourselves. I know, you’re thinking, “the guy was going to do Bible study – how’s that self-focused?!” Generally speaking, we tend to think in terms of “how can I get where I need to go?” We think that way about our weight, our jobs, our communication, our use of money, our knowledge of Scripture verses, our marriage or our parenting. Why wouldn’t we turn that kind of thinking to our relationship with God? No one ever acts without a reason or even a point. We are constantly using things to get other things. How do we know that we haven’t somehow been doing the same thing in our spiritual lives? Why wouldn’t we “use” God – the greatest of all powers – to get what we want?