From The Good of Giving Up
My friends Annie and Bill decided to do some bold decorating in their dining room. On one wall they painted a mural of their family history. I’m not talking about the history of just their lives, their parents’ lives, or even their grandparents’ lives. That’s all included, but the mural also includes events from hundreds of years ago. Messy situations, controversial events, blunders, swindles, and lynchings – stuff the rest of us would want to sweep under the rug, not display on our dining room walls.
One panel shows Annie’s ancestor Jack Horner crouching in shame outside a beautiful estate he allegedly stole from a Roman Catholic bishop. Henry VIII rewarded old Jack for his treachery, but history disgraced him for it. Perhaps you’ve heard the old nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner who “stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and said, ‘What a good boy am I!’” Yikes. That’s Grandpa.
Another panel is pure contradiction. It pictures the beautiful estate of Annie’s great-grandfather, Bibb, a well-loved Baptist preacher and man of God. It all seems good, except that his estate has slaves working in the fields. And he was a Confederate spy. Not exactly a great conversation piece when guests come over.
Why on Earth would Bill and Annie display all this in their own home? In Annie’s words, “I decided to let it stand as a cautionary tale to me not to ever forget how much the cultural norms can influence me, and how dependent on the mercy of God I am.” In part, Bill and Annie had that mural painted to know what they were capable of. It is a spiritual history of their family – the good, the bad, the ugly.
Everyone in God’s family has a spiritual history, extending back to the Garden of Eden. It’s messy yet covered with God’s mercy. As you consider practicing Lent, I want to paint a mural of sorts that captures major themes from our family history. Together we’ll walk through one scene at a time. Unless we see what we are capable of, we might dive headfirst into Lent and repeat history in a way we never intended. Or we might dismiss Lent outright and make the opposite error of reckless self-indulgence.
The Hunger Strike
The first panel is filled with images of pious people who are fasting, praying, and even acting generously with their possessions – all classic Lenten disciplines, mind you. If you get close to the wall, you can see that their expressions are serious and somber. And a little angry.
It’s a hunger strike.
At its heart, a hunger strike is a power play. It’s one of the last cards you can throw down as a prisoner, political dissident, or slave. The point is to fast in order to force the hand of the higher-ups to satisfy your demands. It’s a high-stakes move. Once you go on hunger strike and a few others join you, the game changes, or at least that’s the intention.
Hunger strikes are about power, not love. And that’s how some of our forefathers related to God. They acknowledged his influence and tried to manipulate him. So they went without food, put on sackcloth and ashes, and waited for God to meet their demands. But God does not play games with us. He is not enticed by our bribes, impressed with our asceticism, or cowed by our manipulations.
The sad, angry people in the hunger-strike panel are all screaming in unison:
Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?
It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? (Malachi 3:14)
When we meet God’s commands in hope that he will meet our demands, we think we are high-functioning, pious people. We are showing God how serious we are. “I’m fasting so God will bring revival to this city,” “so my son will return to the Lord,” “to show God I’m ready to meet my spouse,” or, “so God will take this temptation away.”
By all appearances, we look spiritual, so earnest. But like our ancestors, eventually we will fall and be bitterly disappointed. The elder brother in Jesus’s parable about the Prodigal Son said to his father, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends,” (Luke 15:29). His faithfulness to his father wasn’t motivated by love, but by swag. “I served you for your goats! Where are my goats, Dad?” This is cold reciprocity laid bare. The fictional elder brother was miserable and gloomy, like the real-life Pharisees he personified.
The hunger strike scene pictures a miserable circus. Religious people jump through pointless hoops. They whip their own flesh to the point of bleeding. Everyone tries to out-suffer others in order to merit God’s intervention. This is the spiritual sickness behind the medieval practice of indulgences. Yet, there are Christians of every stripe and era in this panel, including us Protestants. All of us are capable of self-obsession that knows nothing of the original vision for Lent or Christian discipleship.
Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers were right to protest the way Lent was practiced in their day. It had become a hunger strike par excellence. Lent had become a clearinghouse for religious corruption and control.
Take a good look at this first panel. This is in our ancestry, and it is only by God’s mercy that we ourselves are not painted in it. Heaven forbid that our Lenten practices turn us into judgmental, arrogant cranks. We are wise to remember Paul’s admonition to the church in Galatia:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith – just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (3:1-3, 5-6)
We are not justified by fasting, prayer, and generosity. Nor are we justified by expository preaching, social justice, or reciting the Sinner’s Prayer correctly. We are justified by grace through faith. Thanks be to God! There is a place for Lent and its disciplines, so long as we don’t see them as means for a hunger strike.
The All-Inclusive Resort
The next panel is much different. Behold! the all-inclusive resort. This resort is filled with those who are fed up with the sanctimony of the hunger strike. Here the people of God overindulge every appetite of the body. Adam and Eve are in the center. Their mouths are open, their hands outstretched – not for praying, but for gorging. They fill their bellies and forget about God.
This resort is not family-friendly. Don’t let your kids look at it, unless you let them read the Old Testament. Because the children of Israel are depicted acting extravagantly next to their golden calf – eating, drinking, and carousing, (Exodus 32:6).
This first panel looks a lot like a spring-break trip, a frat party, a free-for-all. It’s where we find the Prodigal Son, squandering his money and living recklessly, (Luke 15:13). Everyone is going back for seconds and thirds – for whatever they want. This is for everyone who has been liberated from “religion,” for whom “all things are lawful,” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
The idea of an all-inclusive resort is that you pay one lump sum for full access. But who is paying the lump sum in this panel? It’s not who you think.
It you look carefully, you’ll see our spiritual ancestors trampling on others, specifically the poor, to get what they wanted. Jacob is taking Esau’s blessing to get ahead. Judah and his brothers are selling Joseph for some cash. The Israelites of Judges 21 are ambushing foreign dancers to make them their wives. King David is using his power to bed Bathsheba and kill her husband, Uriah. The wealthy Corinthian church members are indulging while the less-wealthy members go hungry. When we give way to excess, injustice follows close behind.
Ezekiel called out the spiritual leaders of Israel who used their power to feed themselves rather than to care for those entrusted to their authority:
Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-3)
The all-inclusive resort is a story of the haves and have-nots. Many of the women and children are exploited financially or otherwise. Only a few people are having fun: mostly powerful men.
But everybody is degraded. Everyone is serving an appetite, theirs or someone else’s. Painted above the debauched images are the grave words of the apostle Paul: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on Earthly things,” (Philippians 3:19).
As one who lives in an American city with access to every pleasure imaginable, the all-inclusive resort is not far from home. In Chicago, almost any craving can be satisfied – cheaply, secretly. GrubHub can supply the food. Saucey can deliver the alcohol, and Tinder can get you sex. Maybe you just want to be entertained. Jump on a peer-to-peer video console, and adult website, or Amazon Prime Video.
For those of us living in the affluent West, embedded into our daily lives is the implicit belief that it’s crazy to deny your appetites. And giving way to this belief is like riding on a lazy river. Unless you swim upstream, it will take you places you never imagined. Just ask my friend Vince.
When I met Vince, his marriage was in danger due to his pornography addiction. Even though he grew up in the church and had a strong faith in Christ, he was never quite able to master his addiction, which began in junior high. So instead of starving his cravings, he fed them secretly. His hunger for sexual pleasure, good food, and comfort were never tamed, until it wrecked his sexual union with his wife and his capacity to feel strong emotions. It was my joy to walk Vince through a process of gospel restoration, which included the intentional denial of his cravings. I saw Vince discover and express the freedom Christ offers anyone who will surrender their appetites to him. Some of us are suspicious of Lent because choosing hunger seems like senseless self-injury. “We’re free in the gospel!” some say. “God doesn’t need our fasting!” Yes and amen. But beware: the ambient culture has confused the meaning of freedom, which no doubt affects the way many of us understand it.
In the scriptures, Jesus is the Lord who sets us free to love God and neighbor. Fasting helps us participate in that freedom. But in the modern West, pleasure is the “lord” who is said to set us free to consume our neighbor – and God, for that matter.
Does “free in the gospel” mean that we never fast, something that every single Protestant Reformer practiced and taught, whether or not they advocated for Lent?
Let’s look at one last panel.
A Table in the Wilderness
My favorite scene in Bill and Annie’s mural is the one depicting “rescue.” In this scene, Annie is a little girl playing in the creek with her granny who saved her life when she was practically orphaned. Her husband, Bill, who would save her from self-destruction as an adult, approaches the creek from a distance. In the shadow of this mural, I have witnessed Annie and Bill repeat this story of rescue time and again as they provide spiritual care and hospitality to people who feel weary and lost. I see them care for her special-needs granddaughter with the same tenderness depicted in the mural. I see them engage and pray over my son Sam, their godson.
This rescue panel is three-dimensional. It has a living quality to it. The mural doesn’t just remind them of what they are capable of; it speaks to what they are called to in Christ so that she and her family can repeat history the right way.
What are we called to?
The final panel in our Lenten mural is a table in the wilderness. Here in the desert, Jesus sits at a table set for him by his Father. His head is anointed with oil, and his countenance is bright. Though he’s fasting from physical nourishment, he’s feasting on his Father’s love. He masters his physical appetite and metabolizes the bread, which is not bread. Like the poet of Psalm 23, Jesus is surrounded by enemies, wild animals, and Satan himself. But he’s filled with the Word of God. The Holy Spirit leads him, and angels minister to him. This table is nothing less than Heaven breaking into Earth.
In his scene, Jesus does not simply feast on God. He is a feast for hungry people. He is the Bread of Heaven, broken for the life of the world. All who eat of him will never hunger, and all who drink of him will never thirst, (John 6:35). Above this mural reads an invitation from the prophet Isaiah:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Sitting on Jesus’s left are all those faithful Israelites who fasted and prayed in anticipation on the Messiah: Moses, Elijah, and everyone else who believed the Law and the Prophets. On his right are all those he taught to fast and pray: the disciples, the apostles, and everyone else who is alive in Christ. Refugees from the hunger strike and the all-inclusive resort have found their way and are also seated at the table. And they look relieved. On their faces you can see a look of long-awaited satisfaction. Jesus is helping them unlearn the lie that God demands our merit, or that God is a magic vending machine. The Lord is their shepherd, and they shall not want.
As this fellowship fills up on God’s generosity, it begins to overflow from them to others. Compassion for the poor and the persecuted naturally follow. Justice rolls down like waters. The resources of the fellowship are directed outward to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick. Slaves are becoming sons, broken people are getting healed, and those who had been debased are made holy unto the Lord. The gathering is marked by repentance, salvation, and freedom. Every appetite is eventually set in order.
So many are seated at the table. As I begin to count them, I find they are more than the sand of the seashore, more than the stars in the sky. They all seem to shine like stars, but no one as brightly as the Son. This panel makes me squint, but I can’t look away.
Finally, I find that the faces are looking back at me, looking back at you. Their faces pose a joyful invitation: “Won’t you come join us?”
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
A cloud of witnesses invites us to feast on Jesus through fasting, prayer, and generosity. Along with Jesus, they are cheering for us to sit at the table. To do so may mean that we lay aside some comfortable hindrances, that we say goodbye to a few attachments. “Good riddance. I want a seat next to Jesus at the table!” This is what I’m called to. And so are you.
When we practice Lent in the spirit of Jesus, it’s not about making God happy, looking spiritual, or repeating empty traditions. It’s not a power move or a forced march. Jesus and the cloud of witnesses show us that Lent is about Jesus – and, therefore, about love. The Holy Spirit uses fasting, prayer, and generosity to satisfy us with God’s fatherly love. As a result we are moved to share that love with others. And that is history worth repeating.