I wonder if you have ever watched Room 101? That’s the show where comedians and celebrity types try to persuade the host Frank Skinner to consign their pet hates to Room 101, in other words to get rid of the thing forever.
I happened to watch a particularly hilarious edition the other evening when various items or candidates for oblivion were discussed: men who wear too much after shave; plastic flowers; the shot put; and food that doesn’t taste like we remember it tasting.
I have to confess that as we enter the season running up to Easter, one of the things that I personally would like to consign to Room 101 is giving things up for Lent. It was always being urged on me as a child, but I don’t think it ever did me any spiritual good at all. And while schools don’t seem to teach much that is genuinely Christian, giving something up for Lent is still often suggested as a ‘Christian’ thing to do.
My first problem is that if someone asks me why they should give something up for Lent, I can’t give them any explanation at all from the Bible. That’s not a great starting point! The closest Jesus gets is Mark 8: 34 where he says: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
But he’s clearly not talking about giving up cream cakes or chocolate, he’s talking about whole-of-life, whole-hearted, radical self-denying Christian discipleship – not for a few weeks during Lent but every single day of our lives.
My second problem is that if giving things up is more or less the only ‘Christian’ thing people see or hear us doing.
I fear we’re giving them a very impoverished picture: a Christianity of restrictions and rules that seeks to take away. But the Gospel of grace should always be the opposite: joyful, life-affirming and life-enhancing.
The worst problem though was wonderfully illustrated at a recent Sussex Gospel Partnership meeting which a few of us attended. The teaching was provided by American Pastor Kevin DeYoung. He was asking: Why is there a ‘hole in our holiness?’ Why are Christians today so often unconcerned with personal holiness? Why do we talk about it and teach it so little in our churches?
One of the reasons is that we can have a very narrow definition of holiness. We equate it with either avoiding a few taboo things (like, for example, marital unfaithfulness) or we equate it with doing a few things – like that one, token act of self-denial during Lent. We do that or don’t do that – and we can think it makes us holy.
But holiness is far, far more. JC Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool and great 19th century evangelical said we should be holy because that is one of the reasons Jesus came to die for us. Christians should therefore have a passion for holiness: not sinless perfection, which is impossible but a genuine and sincere and life-long obedience to God.
If giving up chocolate etc. is going to help you pursue radical holiness that is pleasing to God the Father, then go for it! But I rather fear it’s a deceptive short cut. And short cuts in the Christian life never seem to work.
With every good wish for a joyful, unrestrictive, life affirming Lent and Easter,