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Is Lent obsolete?
When I was an undergraduate, I studied Angela Davis, the former Black Panther, and her book Are Prisons Obsolete? In the text, she posits that prisons in the United States are fueled by private industry and are built and filled for-profit, not to correct detainees. The U.S., for example, has less than five percent of the world’s population, year 25 percent of its prison population. She exposes the corruption in the industry and currently heads up an organization called Critical Resistance which seeks to limit the expansion of the prison industrial complex.
I haven’t really organized my life around defending this idea, and it ultimately ends up being a bit distracting to start conversations there, but there is some assumptions we might make if we choose to disagree with Davis’ idea.
The biggest one for me is that violence, or the threat of it, is the best motivator for individuals in our effort to live “good lives.” That, with the threat of imprisonment or some sort punishment, we are likely to act correctly. We’ll get fired if we don’t work well enough. We’ll get a ticket if we drive too fast. You won’t get dessert if you don’t clean your room. You’ll get an F if you don’t do your homework. So you can see how we sometimes use punishment as a way of modifying behavior.
Thought of a different way, we’ll get better insurance rates if we drive well. We’ll get a raise if we work harder. We’ll get two cookies if we do the dishes. You’ll get an A if you do your homework. Punishment and even rewards can be false motivators for getting things done, but I do think that’s a really hard mentality to break out of.
Jesus tries to get us there. Life in Him is endless, there won’t be death. We’ve already won the battle and there’s practically nothing we can do to jeopardize that.
And so, if the battle has been won already, then we are free to live however we want. We are free to do as we please, sinful or righteous, because the Lord has redeemed us. And of course, there’s that assumption that we make about the world—without a consequence, without a punishment (or without a reward for good behavior)—people will act however they want. So if life in Christ is just a big, fat blank check, then people will just act as evil as they always have.
Paul argues that we are made into new creations that not only “should” not sin, but are compelled and no longer desire to because of the transformation that Jesus makes in us. We are redeemed and purified by Jesus, he is our new master.
So if Christ and the Spirit already did all of the work of saving me and transforming me, and I am recreated into a new being that’s following him and bringing the Kingdom of God here, what’s the deal with Lent? Why don’t I just operate out of the joy and new life that Jesus gives me? Why would I bother walking with Jesus through the desert, fasting as he fasted? Why should I bother “giving up” something or “taking something on?” Why should I inflict suffering on myself? What’s the point?
There’s the same logic again. If I am guaranteed my reward, why would I cause myself any sort of suffering? It’s not going to make my reward better is it? It’s not going to make the cookies sweeter, right? Why would someone abstain on purpose? That’s hard for American Evangelicals to get, I know.
One of the biggest reasons that I choose to sacrifice something for Lent is because it reinvigorates my sense of frailty as a human, my neediness and weakness as an individual, and makes me incredible sensitive, emotionally and spiritually.
I know this through my own experiences, but as I read the Scripture too, I see how Jesus fasted and how he responded to it. He’s been fasting in the desert for forty days and nights (this is exactly where the idea of Lent comes from) and the devil shows up and tempts him.
The temptation is central to the fasting. We fast in order to know what tempts us. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. And of course, he’s tempted to live off of more than what God gives him, since he can just generate wealth for himself. He’s tempted to live a destructive lifestyle since he’ll never die. And furthermore, he’s tempted to become the emperor himself. Jesus is tempted by some of the same things that we are. And through his fasting he discovers that about himself and we can do the same.
When I’ve fasted in the past, I’ve typically deprived myself of food and sleep. (Although I’ve also given up smoking and coffee for good through Lenten discipline.) And as many of you know, going without food, or sleep, let alone caffeine and nicotine, can make you pretty irritable. Once we get past the fact that it’s not everyone else that’s bothering us, and it’s not really the withdrawal either, we get to an incredibly sensitive place where we can really get to know who we are, and we can rely on God more to change us.
It’s OK to choose something to give up or something to take on that’s going to really stresses you out. That’s going to make you familiar again with your weakness.
It can be easy to use Lent as an excuse to go on a diet, or to practice some sort of restraint that we should practice anyway—granted that might be very hard for you and you might grow through your struggle, so I don’t want to belittle whatever it is you chose to sacrifice (if anything at all! And of course it’s not too late to start!) I think trying to do anything at all is honorable and I think you
should run with it.
And in your discipline this year, you might struggle with basic human needs, and there might be a great way of out them. When you are limiting yourself, you may actually need to rely on God more. In your weakness, his provision for you, his will for you, his power is made perfect.