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.

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18 Feb 2008: updated typos

Posted by Tex

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  • Deb

    Why do you assume that because an entire church body participates in the fast that it has been made into “an iron law”? Do you have some knowledge that those of us who are in these churches don’t? The Pharisee was condemned by Christ, not because he kept the fast or the law but because of his pride.

  • Tex

    Deb,
    Thanks for the question…here are my thoughts:

    That fasting is a law in some churches is common knowledge. The laws regarding fasting and days of penitence in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, can be found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canons 1250 through 1253 (full text can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/236788/Code-of-Canon-Law-1983). This much is indisputable and really not particularly interesting (for this discussion, anyway).

    My point, however, is this: just as it is possible to keep the letter of the law without also keeping the spirit of the law, so too it is possible to perform voluntary acts of devotion in accordance with form or tradition without performing them in the proper spirit.

    Whether a person fasts because it is canonically mandated by his church or because he has voluntarily imposed such an act upon himself, he is equally capable of abusing the fast and twisting it into an act of pride, “works-righteousness,” and self-congratulation.

    Kyrie eleison.

  • Deb

    That fasting is a law in some churches is common knowledge. The laws regarding fasting and days of penitence in the Roman Catholic Church,

    You say “fasting is a law in *some* churches”, but then only tell me about the Catholics. I still find this unfair to lump all those who participate in the fast with those who require it as canon law. Perhaps you should say “fasting is the law in only one church tradition, the other encourage its members to participate for spiritual benefit.” In any event I am not Catholic, so I would prefer to find out how this actually plays out within the Catholic tradition, rather than sitting from the sidelines and deciding how others do things. I wonder how “iron” those laws are within the life of a parish? Christianity is not a set of laws or books, it is life.

    Whether a person fasts because it is canonically mandated by his church or because he has voluntarily imposed such an act upon himself, he is equally capable of abusing the fast and twisting it into an act of pride, “works-righteousness,” and self-congratulation.

    I agree. However, I get the feeling (and perhaps this is unfair, but its there, nonetheless) that you assume those of us who do fast do not receive this type of sober admonition within our church tradition and that there is an ancient tradition in writing, concerning this. As Christians I think we will always wrestle between being the Publican and the Pharisee or the Prodigal Son and his brother, and the Church Fathers knew this full well.

    Kindest Regards

  • Tex

    Deb,
    Christianity is, indeed, not simply a set of laws or books but a way of life. I agree with this completely, and it was this fact that motivated much of the post that has engendered our discussion.

    I think I am being misconstrued as saying that there is a necessary dichotomy between spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting) and true spirituality or spiritual freedom. My apologies if my disagreement with the practice of allowing good spiritual disciplines to become burdens on the souls of men has ended up sounding anti-nomian. This is hardly the case.

    I do want to point out that other churches still make use of canon law including the Anglican and Orthodox communions–accepting the same Apostolic Canons as I cited in my previous comment. The ways in which these church bodies carry out and apply canon law has varied over the centuries, and canon law has lost most of its teeth ever since the ascendancy of civil law and post-Enlightenment political structures.

    I certainly hope that those of you who fast with the Church receive “sober admonition” to be on guard against hypocrisy; I would expect this to be the case among any church body that is committed to worshipping God in truth. My point was to offer a similar admonition primarily to those evangelicals who may not hear it anywhere else, while (apparently) serving to remind Christians from the older denominations to be on guard against hypocrisy and works-righteousness as well.

    I appreciate your thoughts and willingness to interact with me on this topic.