I will always be among the first to sharply criticize the abuses of ritual and liturgy that so often plague the older and “higher” churches in the world. It is as though they never quite understood one of the assumptions of the Apostles’ teaching regarding Judaism—the old is gone, the new is come. Many older church bodies seem to have returned surprisingly quickly to a pattern of ritual and practice similar to Judaism after first being taught that God had come to dwell among His people in a new way, a way in which each person among His people was made a temple of God by the indwelling of the Spirit of God. Rituals, fasts, and spiritual disciplines quickly found their way into the law books of many churches and placed heavy weights upon the hearts of men.
However, if rituals and fasts had become too much of a burden to the people of God by being enforced as church law, today the pendulum has swung towards its apogee and the oft-quoted “freedom of the Christian” has led many to show blatant disregard to both the rituals of Christendom and the wisdom that lies behind them. There are numerous reasons to fast and pray, and even to celebrate and worship God according to an orderly and thoughtful pattern. This Lenten season one need not look too far abroad to find an abundance of essays and blog postings on the theological riches of fasting and Lent.
In an interesting movement against the overwrought sentiments of Christian freedom, it is increasingly common to find evangelical Christians voluntarily celebrating the forty-day fast. This free choice of self-imposed mortification ought to be applauded since, being freely chosen, it is better able to avoid the hypocrisy, legalism, and lifelessness so prevalent when spiritual disciplines are made into iron laws.
Yet, the opportunity for sin is present even here. Acts of regulated discipline freely done by many evangelicals for the health of their souls can become subtle acts of supererogation. It has come as a surprise to hear not only that many of my Christian friends are celebrating Lent, but that they also desire to know whether and in what ways everyone else is doing the same. It is unsettling to detect the subtle implications latent in the simple query, “What did you give up for Lent?” Of course most would claim that they are doing nothing more than asking an innocent question, yet, one must always be on guard—sin and pride have a dogged way of turning up in the most unsuspected places.
The obvious benefits of fasting and other spiritual disciplines while still not being necessary for salvation, make it easy to take pride in such practices—suggesting to the individual that it his work that deserves praise and honor. To such as these the words of Jesus strike a penetrating note,
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
It is perfection that God demands and there is precious little we can supererogate to such a duty. Let us, therefore, fast and pray this Lent (and always) so that we might know the measure of our days and that we might have insight into the glorious life that is given to us in liberality.