When Lent begins on March 1, I will join other Christians in giving something up.
When we abstain from certain activities or deny ourselves certain pleasures during Lent, we join with believers across the centuries who have given up things as a form of penance. For some, penance is a sacramental rite. For others, it’s a confession—a confession that involves repenting of our sins before the Lord. For still others, the lenten tradition of giving something up is a way to spiritually fast in order to focus our attention on Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Some people may look at what we seek to give up and smile. Giving up chocolate for Lent? How sweet! Giving up Facebook? Hope you have some friends left! But whatever we give up for Lent is personal. If missing chocolate or shutting down Facebook connects us more meaningfully to God during this season, none of us need criticize.
I’ve given up many things during Lent in previous years. This year’s fast, however, is a bit different. To explain it well, I need to back up a number of years.
While I was a college student, I encountered H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture. In it Niebuhr explains so nicely how believers tend to take different paths to understand faithful living in response to the culture or society in which we find ourselves.
Some believers adopt the posture of Christ against culture. Others embrace the Christ of culture. Still others see Christ above culture or Christ and culture in paradox.
I, as a young Calvinist already aware of Abraham Kuyper’s assertion that every square inch belongs to God, found Christ transforming culture to be a perfect fit. This approach looks for God’s actions between the Kingdom “now and yet coming,” in order that we may join in God’s transforming work through Christ and the power of the Spirit.
While still staunchly Reformed and Kuyperian, I feel called this Lent to give up my certainty about my role in “Christ transforming culture.” I’m doing this as a way of saying, “I’m sorry, God, for all those times when I assumed I knew your plan and was busily at work in it but ignored others who may have understood your plan differently.
“I’m sorry for all the times when I voted for people or policies that I assumed would put me on your transforming side but didn’t consider transformation that could happen in other ways; all those times when I put my faith in educational systems that I assumed would help to bring about a new generation of transformationalists who thought and acted like me.”
Giving up this assumption that my own decisions and way of seeing things is right, leaves me feeling a bit naked, vulnerable. It means a loss of certainty; a loss of confidence in myself. It acknowledges an error for which I need to repent.
For these 40 days of Lent I’m going to simply seek to be in the church, within the body of Christ. Not acting on a belief that God has called me to be part of his transformationalist troops, but to be one of many parts of Christ’s body yearning to become more Christ-like.
I trust that in the coming days many of us will remained focused with phrases like restoring God’s world or transforming for shalom. Some will still voice that candidate A or B, legislation X or Y will best accomplish God’s transforming purposes. Some will even be called to work toward those ends. Yet I will notice, I suspect, that many times there will not be unity of strategy even among the transformationalists.
As I give up this certainty for Lent, I’ll turn instead toward the Beatitudes. And maybe, just maybe, by the end of Lent I’ll be able to refine and restart my understanding of Christ and culture and be used mightily by him. The Beatitudes end, after all, where we find ourselves on resurrection morning: Rejoice and be glad!