At this point in a new year, I am usually struck by how quickly the weeks have passed and how it is not at all new anymore. Just as winter gives way to spring (in weather if not strictly by the calendar), the Christian year keeps marching along too. All of the preparation for a special Christmas season now seems so long ago. But soon we are entering one of the other more significant times of the year for Christians: Lent.
Lent is a season of preparation. We have Easter in our sights, looking forward to the event that gives Christians our profound joy and hope. But, lest we forget Jesus’ path to that first Easter morning, we first take the season of Lent to hear Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow” and to pay attention to the way he took up his cross and followed God’s purpose for him. The biblical word for that is “discipleship.”
In Lent, there is a tradition of picking something to “give up for Lent”–to practice self-denial somehow, whether in a small or large way, in order to focus on Jesus and the fact that he practiced self-denial in the most significant way imaginable. This sort of practice–a concrete way to help us focus on God–is typically called a “spiritual discipline.” Spiritual disciplines include habits like prayer, Scripture reading, fasting (from food or something else), intentional gratitude, and the like.
John Ortberg, a prominent pastor and author, has expressed the frustration of many when he read a book describing 12 spiritual disciplines, confessing, “I felt like I was already not reading the Bible and praying enough–now I have ten more activities I have to feel guilty about?”
But that frustration did not diminish his commitment to deliberate spiritual growth. Thankfully, he shares insights he discovered that helped him move forward:
On the other hand, I don’t just drift into spiritual growth. So how do I know what spiritual practices might be helpful to me? Here’s one of the most helpful insights I know, courtesy of Dallas Willard.
Sins can be divided into two types:
1. Sins of Omission (lovelessness, joylessness-–things I DON’T do)
2. Sins of Commission (lying, gossiping-–things I DO)
Disciplines can be divided into two related types:
1. Disciplines of Engagement (study, worship-–things I DO)
2. Disciplines of Abstinence (fasting, solitude–-things I DON’T DO)
Generally–when I wrestle with a sin of Omission, I will be helped by a discipline of engagement. For instance, if I struggle with joylessness I will be helped by the practice of celebration. If I struggle with being miserly I will be helped by the practice of giving.
When I wrestle with a sin of Commission, I will be helped by a practice of Abstinence. If I struggle with gossip I will be helped by practicing silence; if I wrestle with ‘impression management’ I will be helped by solitude.
I encourage you to pick something to give up, practicing a discipline of abstinence, this Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, March 9, and going through Easter Sunday, April 24. And I encourage you to pick something to do, practicing a discipline of engagement as well.
What distraction can you lay aside that will help you focus on Christ? What habit can you practice that will help you focus on Christ?
That is one of the true gifts of the Christian season of Lent–finding practical ways to focus our attention and devotion to Christ. How do you plan receive that gift this year?