Self-Denial - Week of March 8th

By Judy Nichols

March 8, 2015

I would venture to say that what most people think of when they think of Lent is self denial. "Giving up something for Lent" is a fairly common practice, at least among religious people. And while I would never denigrate a person’s giving up something for Lent, some of the things we give up are inconsequential at best, and at their worst make a mockery of the whole concept.

I have been guilty of this myself. I’ve given up chocolate (something I dearly love) for Lent, only to realize all I really did was switch to some other candy to satisfy my nibbling habit. Not a lot of self-denial there, for sure. I gave up facebook one year because I realized it was taking up far too much of my time. That’s probably a little closer to a real sacrifice, but still seems trivial in light of Jesus’ call to take up our cross daily in order to follow Him.

If these shallow things are what we give up for Lent, what does that say about our faith? In these days where some are beheaded or burned alive for their faith, surely there is something of more significance we can offer to our Lord by way of self denial.

I turn to the book of Isaiah to see God’s heart on the matter. The ancient Israelites were careful to observe the religious rituals, including fasting, even as their hearts were cold and hard. "This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (Isa. 29:13). They fasted and humbled themselves in sack cloth and ashes in the midst of a lifestyle of oppressing their workers, quarreling and fighting among themselves, and pursuing their own pleasures (Isa. 58:3-5). Is this how we approach Lent? Is it a time for laying down a trifling pleasure or pastime while we continue holding a grudge against someone and pursuing our upward mobility?

Isaiah reveals the things we really ought to be giving up for Lent. First among them is sin. "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness . . .?" (Isa 58:6). To turn away from those things that arouse our flesh – temptations, gossip, controversy, envy, pride – will keep us from sin’s grip. And to forgive those who have wronged us releases not only the offender but also ourselves from the debt. God’s desire is that we be free from sin and, indeed, gave up His Son to purchase that freedom. "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

Next is oppression: "to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free" (58:6b). I am not an employer; there is no one over whom I wield authority. But I can treat people fairly, even when I have something to lose by doing so. To wait patiently even though I’m in a hurry, to overlook poor service and still give a decent tip, or to offer a gentle word instead of a rebuke are all ways I can eschew oppression.

But that’s not all God wants regarding oppression. He also says, "and to break every yoke" (58:6c). God will be pleased when we not only avoid oppressing others ourselves but also work to overturn oppressive practices and policies in our society and government. That will demand we give up some time and effort to research and action.

Generosity is also high on God’s list. We may think we are being generous when we put our tithe into the offering, and ten percent is not insignificant. But radical generosity is what Isaiah 58 presents. "Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked to cover him?" (58:7). To give up part of my food is something I have done and will continue to do. But to give up part of my living space? And especially to down and out people? To have to interact with the needy, unkempt, and insensitive on a daily basis would truly be a denial of self. If I’m honest, I have to say I’m not sure I’m up to that kind of sacrifice. And what about clothing the naked? I do give away clothing I no longer wear, but my closet and dresser drawers are still jam-packed. What would it take for me to be content with just enough and little or no excess?

God is also concerned about our relationships. "And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" (58:7b). Family is the laboratory where we are most often tested. Conflict, sibling rivalry, emotions, triumphs and failures, hopes and disappointments all have a way of shaping us and determining how vulnerable we want to be in the future. Isolation is something many have chosen, both in their nuclear families and in the church. This is not God’s call for His people. "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). "Bear one another’s burdens and thereby fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). "Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed" (James 5:16). "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Intimacy is what God desires. Can I be intimate with Him while I hold others at arm’s length?

Self-denial is more about a heart change than about doing without something. "Self" is a very important word to us. Self-confident, self-aware, self-determined, self-assured, self-controlled, to be a self-made man; these are all things we admire and strive for. But at its core, self is that part of us that wants to be in control. Whatever we do that genuinely takes control out of the hands of self and puts it in the hands of God is self-denial. My prayer this Lenten season is that we not dance around the edges of self-denial but get to the heart of the matter. Wresting control out of the hands of self is not easy. I have not done it. But I know that Jesus died so that I can "no longer live for [myself] but for Him who died and rose again on [my] behalf" (2 Cor. 5:15).

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