Article for the February edition of The Hillside Messenger
The approach of Lent every year poses the questions of how best we shall keep a holy Lent and how constructively we shall use this penitential season of the Church’s year to deepen our prayer life and our love for God and obedience to Him.
The temptation for those Christians who do not really want to turn more fully toward the Lord Jesus Christ is to let this season pass them by as one scene in the Church’s revolving stage of liturgical pageants, something external to themselves with which they have no deep longing to engage except as mildly interested spectators, or as actors that assume a role for the duration of a play, but do not permanently incorporate in their lives the characters that they portray. Against such role-play, the Lord directs his message in Isaiah 58, insisting that He takes no delight in the fast that is expressed only in acts of apparent self-abasement (sackcloth and ashes), but rather the fast in which one stops oppressing and mistreating one’s fellow-man, and ceases from wickedness (Is. 58:6), as well as cares for one’s hungry and needy neighbor (Is. 58:7). The Lord Jesus Christ similarly exhorts his disciples not to make a show of their religion in front of people when in Matthew 6 he instructs them to give alms, to pray and to fast in secret, so that they may not do it to gain the reward of people’s approval, but to receive the Father’s reward in secret. Christian love and faith is not revealed in hypocrisy (lit. play-acting), but in sincerity, in a relationship with God not entered into to win the approval of men, but rather as a Christian’s response to God’s love.
During Lent, therefore, God through the Church calls every one of us not to keep up the appearance of being righteous before God and the world, but to acknowledge our sinfulness and let the Holy Spirit peel away the layers of sin that may have accumulated in our lives, and bring healing and forgiveness to our souls. In Ps. 23:1-3 (KJV), the Lord clearly expresses his will to do this for the soul whose Shepherd (Lord and Saviour) he is:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
The Lord is like a shepherd who leads his sheep to green pastures and lets them lie down there, and drink from still waters. Restoring the soul and leading it in paths of righteousness go hand in hand, and the Lord does these things to the glory of his Name and for the love of his people.
Keeping a holy Lent calls for discarding sinful attitudes and habits, and all those closely clinging or besetting sins (Hebrews 12:1), as well as embracing and putting on those virtues, attitudes and habits which are good and righteous, such as the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), all of which will strengthen our relationship with God and be evidence of a living faith (Article XII, The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, p. 605, Book of Common Prayer, 1928).
What we must acknowledge as Christians is how deeply ingrained in us is the tendency to sin. These words from the prophet Jeremiah appropriately describe man’s fallen and sinful nature:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.
(Jeremiah 17:9-10, KJV)
It is imperative, therefore, that each of us cooperates with the Holy Spirit as He searches our hearts and “tries our reins,” that is, discerns our inner motives. Though we are under grace and not under Law (Romans 6:14; 8:2), if we purposefully persist in sin without repentance, God will recompense us according to the fruit of our doings. God treats the one who turns to or continues in sin in just the same way as he declares he does in Ezekiel 33:12-13.
Why it is important that we deal with sin in our lives is that we can become hardened by it and possibly in the end not come to eternal salvation. St. John writes this warning about sin unto death:
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.
(1 John 5:16-17, KJV)
This is one of the verses (the other being 1 Corinthians 3: 8-15) on which Roman Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages based their distinction between mortal and venial sin. For Protestants, sin results in the judgment of God, and all sin separates man from God. Yet the distinction between sin unto death and sin not unto death should be understood certainly in terms of more serious and lasting sins being “unto death” when the sinner refuses to repent of them, whereas sins not unto death are less serious and the sinner repents of them. What we have to beware of, is that no sin so overcomes our soul and so works its way into the habits of our thought that it becomes deadly in effect.
Therefore, it will be beneficial for us this Lent to examine ourselves with the help of the Holy Spirit. There are various lists of sins in the New Testament (Romans 1:29-32; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5-9; Revelation 21:8). We can also look at our lives in terms of how any of the seven deadly sins may be affecting us and the way we treat other people. Here is the list of the seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth.
We can also meditate on the Ten Commandments and the Summary of the Law (Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 22:37-39 – their meaning as set out on pp. 288-289 of the Prayer Book), and how far we fall short of God’s standard of obedience to them.
Whatever we do this Lent, we must face up to our sinfulness. We must confess our sins to God, and we must honestly ask God for the grace of repentance, and be resolved to lead a new life that is pleasing to God. Then we must receive with joy and gratitude God’s forgiveness. If anyone feels he needs to confess his sins to a priest, he should make an appointment with the rector. None of us needs to live with an unquiet conscience. For most people the General Confession said at one of our services, or in the private saying of Morning or Evening Prayer, is sufficient, but for some it is not, and the Church offers the Sacrament of Confession, that is, private confession to a priest who gives counsel and absolution.
A holy Lent will be a Lent in which we engage fully in the prayerful process of self-examination by the grace of the Holy Spirit, devote ourselves more fully to God in prayer, read and study God’s word, the Bible, more intently and regularly, love God wholly, and show God’s love to all whom we encounter or with whom we have relationships.