By Pastor Ron Buxton
Once again, the season of Lent is upon us. For those that identify with this time of the church calendar, it can mean many things. Usually, it is only about not eating meat on Friday. I remember as a younger man, paying my way through college, I worked at a Subway sandwich shop. It’s hard to believe, but that restaurant chain did exist back that far! Anyways, not being particularly knowledgeable about religious things back then, I was surprised at how many tuna fish sandwiches that were ordered during that time of year. Now I know. However, my column is not about external, or outward, religious practices today.
You see, God’s preferred method of dealing with humanity is backwards from what we normally experience or expect. God tends to work from the inside out. In fact, that was the prophet Samuel’s message found in 1 Samuel 16:7. His statement reads: “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Imagine that. It can be reassuring, and also terrifying at the same time. Human beings, such as we are, tend to judge others by their actions and our own selves by our intentions. Not so with God.
If we could see as God sees, the whole forgiveness business would be a piece of cake. It would instantly and radically change our attitude towards family, friends and society in general. Conversely, if we could see as God sees, we might also avoid some of the toxic and harmful relationships that we often get tangled up in. But we can’t see as God sees, so we must live our lives dependent upon God to help us. That’s faith in a nut shell. When the Apostle Paul exhorted the earliest Christians to “walk by faith, and not by sight”, that was his point.
I think that the same focus should be brought to the season of Lent. The outward and physical aspects should not be just that — only outward and physical. That’s why I entitled this essay: “Self-denial or denial of self.” Let me explain. Self-denial looks good to ourselves primarily. It’s much like the completion of those New Year’s resolutions (as if anyone ever completed them…). But if we ever did, we would want everyone in our social circles to know about it. However, denial of self flips that focus upside down. Others, rather than self, are the benefactors. That was the message of Isaiah’s prophecy in the 58th chapter of his writings.
The people of Israel took pride in their public fasting. From the outward appearance of things, God should have been pleased. But He wasn’t. Now don’t get me wrong. Biblical fasting has a very important role in a believer’s life. When done for the right reasons, and in the right moment, spiritual power is awakened and (dare I say) unleashed in their life. Because the Kingdom of God is often paradoxical, the physical weakness that is induced by fasting often leads to spiritual power. The “affliction of the soul”, which was the Hebrew expression for fasting, awakens our capacity for a more God-centered life. Unfortunately, that was not the case for Isaiah’s audience at that time. Self-denial was not the same as denial of self.
The words from Isaiah were stinging. Isaiah 58:6-8 records- “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth in the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” Did you catch that last phrase? In other words, God’s got our back when we take care of others even at the expense of our own selves. That is the denying of self to the benefit of others. That is the kind of “fast” that gets God’s attention.
So go ahead, eat your tuna fish sandwiches on Friday. But don’t forget that God looks at the heart. Our abstinence should go much deeper, and be motivated from a higher perspective. If not, it’s just a 40 day diet change.