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Toward Wholeness Blog

Real Freedom Found in Abstinence

I’m giving up certain foods for Lent, a part of the Christian tradition that’s not nearly as universally recognized as Christmas and Easter.  I’ll leave the historical background of this season for others to explain.  My point in writing is to ponder this simple question:

What’s gained by abstaining from a certain food, or from Facebook, or  TV, or reading blogs (please no!) for a season?

It’s a good question.  In fact, Colossians 2:20-23 says, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (living this way has) …the appearance of wisdom…but is of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

Taken at face value, this passage is decidedly ‘anti-Lent’ and one gets the feeling that the best thing to do is to celebrate our liberty in Christ by indulging continually.  Self-denial and abstinence will only lead to pride (if you succeed) or condemnation/hypocrisy (if you fail) so why do this at all?  What’s more, we’re told that submitting to structures of abstinence aren’t the final answer in dealing with our dark side.

This kind of thinking illustrates the danger of taking any Bible passage, in isolation, to make a point.  You can prove just about anything if you use the Bible that way.  Suddenly slavery is perfectly justified, as is killing your children for shouting at you, and of course this passage, which one could use to encourage drunkenness and gluttony.  “Don’t mind me,” we say, as we go on our merry way, “I’m so ‘dead to this world’ that I can eat, drink, and have sex anytime at all!”

That’s one way of looking at it…but it’s the wrong way.

The bigger picture of the early church is that fasting was a regular part of life.  Jesus presumed it, and Paul wrote about agreed upon sexual abstinence between husband and wife as if it were a normal thing to do.  Later Paul explains that it’s vital that we not become slaves to any indulgence.  There are several good reasons for this:

1. Real freedom means not only the freedom to indulge, but the freedom to abstain.  If I can’t wake up without my coffee, there’s something wrong, because now I’ve become a slave to it.  If I can’t survive without my morning run, or can’t go a day without Facebook, or find it nearly impossible to turn my smart phone off because being connected is so important….there’s something wrong.  All the gifts:  food, sex, exercise, even connection with others, can rise up enslave us if we can’t say no them.  When that happens, they’re no longer gifts—they’re masters—and they’ll destroy us.

2. We don’t know when abstinence will be forced upon us—so we’re invited to learn contentment. Paul came to a point where he could say, “Poverty or prosperity, being full or going hungry, living in abundance or suffering need: I’m content in all of it!”  It’s a truly remarkable statement, but we’ve no idea of it’s remotely true of us unless we’re able to skip a meal once in a while, or turn off the TV, or drink water instead of wine.  The discipline of Lent helps us learn contentment.  Later in the week, I hope to develop these thoughts further by writing about earthquakes, but for now it’s enough to say that all we enjoy, we enjoy because of grace—as a gift, not a right.  Holding gifts with an open hand will help us function better when the gift isn’t available.

3. Love and service will call us to abstain at various points.  Paul explains this in I Corinthians 8 when he says, “Therefore, if food causes me brother to stumble…I will never eat meat again.”  Imagine altering your diet out of deference to someone else’s faith.  That’s true liberty—mature enough to indulge, but mature enough to know that indulging isn’t that important.

People who are free are free to indulge, but they recognize that every gift of God has a time and place, and so they practice abstinence with enough of a degree of regularity that they’re learning to be flexible—culturally malleable so that they’re able to share a beer in Europe or avoid one in Nepal—whatever the moment demands.  Such people are robust, joy filled servants, freed as they are from addiction to liberty.

What are you giving up for Lent…and why?

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