As you may or may not have noticed, we are now firmly in midst of yet another gripping season of Lent.
People often assume that Lent is about giving something up, but actually the act of abstinence in itself isn't at the heart of what those of us who are Christians, do. Interestingly a poignant and relevant bible verse cropped up twice yesterday, in two different church services I attended. It was from the psalms:
"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise."Psalm 51:16-17
The first service I attended, I was responsible for the morning's prayers and felt compelled to use the words in my petitions. In the second service of the morning, the rector of the church used the phrase in his sermon. In my mind it perfectly encapsulates what Christians should be aiming towards during Lent (and indeed in a macrocosm of this, throughout our entire lives on Earth as well). It isn't about taking a break from something naughty. It isn't about refraining from something we like. It's about taking part in a regular, committed activity that draws us nearer to God. It is the personal cost and commitment that are important, not the action. The former is the purpose is the driving force, the personal cost involved is the fuel... the actual act is merely the vehicle that transports us there.
Not being a creature of many traditional vices, I have often struggled to come up with something I felt able to commit to in terms of giving something up. This year, I opted to commit to spending at least an hour every night in a state of personal lockdown. Simply put, at as close to 6pm every night since Ash Wednesday (or as close as I can get to it, where practicable), I have shut my door, stuck some Christian music on and just put myself in God's presence for an hour. Sometimes I nod off; sometimes I prefer to choose silence over music; sometimes I try to finish a theology book I've been reading and I also try to read scripture and pray as I feel led. The format differs periodically, but whatever happens to me in that slot, is purposefully and intentionally pointing towards the presence of God.
Not that I'm boasting... far from it!
You see all that writing was just some preamble before I talk about what is really on my heart for this post... namely, the matter of when God himself seems to raise the ante.
Please excuse me for one moment if I talk somewhat vaguely on a personal matter:
I have been quite encouraged of late by some personal turns in circumstances and have been investing time, thought and energy on what may easily be a fools errand. Then, all of a sudden... just before Lent, any ideas I may have had were frustrated... that's not to say they were derailed... just that no opportunities have arisen for me to do *anything* in regard to them.
The thought has occurred to me that maybe this is not mere coincidence. I find myself asking, "What if God has decided that this is the thing *He* actually desired me to lay on the altar during Lent?" This thought is somewhat reinforced by the fact that praying over the way I felt about the matter and committing those feelings to God just prior to Lent, seems to have been the catalyst.
It's incredibly frustrating but it is very much in line with some of the things you see God doing in scripture with notable characters. Just when things seem to be turning around for a character, God throws a curve ball. Think of Abraham who after receiving a son, is seemingly called upon by God to sacrifice him... even though he is his true heir and a child of promise. Or think of Josiah who after rejecting the ways of his fathers, embraces the worship of the one, true God... only to discover that the same God who called him to righteousness had now revealed just how far His people had fallen, just how hard the journey back into the light was going to be and that there were no shortcuts... and had then in the narrative basically challenged the new king along the lines of "Are you *really* still up for this? Your move."
Those are just two examples, but there are others. The amazing thing about these men of God, is that when God pulled the plank from under them... they didn't back down and they didn't turn away - Abraham solemnly obeyed but was delivered; Josiah tore his robes and pressed on with the reforms.
And of course these point to the greater, ultimate truth of the sacrifice Jesus Christ himself carried out in the Garden of Gethsemane.
When you are faced with such circumstances, you basically have only a few limited choices. You can stomp your feet about and yell until you get your own way (but you probably won't get anywhere, and you might not find what you wanted is all you hoped if you do - again look at Israel's demands for a king, and God's response). You can passively accept things as they have been and continue to swim against the tide and hope for a lucky break. You can lose faith in what you have already attained and walk away from all God's providence and promises.
I don't think any of these responses are correct. I don't believe God wants us to abandon hope or rob us of it any more than he wants us to try and impatiently snatch it out of his hands. I believe he wants us to surrender our hopes to Him and to entrust them to Him.
Abraham had to trust that God would somehow allow Isaac to walk away from Mount Moriah; Josiah had to trust that God would guide him and strengthen him as he reformed his nation. Jesus had to trust that in obeying his Father's will, and paying our ransom through his sacrifice, that he would be raised to new life.
In my case I have to trust that in surrendering my ideas and intentions to God, that he will give them back to me in a meaningful way that is pleasing to Him, when the relevant time is accomplished. I have resolved not to try and engineer any circumstances for opportunity myself in my personal situation until Lent ends. There may well be natural opportunities that arise, but I have committed to not explore them fully in my favour until that time, or unless God himself turns things around.
In all cases, this is hard. The flesh (the sinful aspect of our human nature), tells us there are no guarantees... that is the cost of the sacrifice and the journey. However, the Spirit and scripture say:
"And we know [with great confidence] that God [who is deeply concerned about us] causes all things to work together [as a plan] for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to His plan and purpose."Romans 8:28 (AMP)
It is this knowledge... this belief, that sustains us through our sacrifices - this and the knowledge that we have One at the Father's side who endured the greatest sacrifice and is able to show sympathy and empathy to our situation through the Spirit.
It can be a hard thing to know and accept that God is sovereign... that He is the potter and we are the clay, but at the same time, that same knowledge is at least equally reassuring.
The question we have to ask ourselves when the time comes, is are we prepared to trust our faith in the One we serve, or let our feelings about our circumstance overwhelm and dominate our actions.
For further contemplation and response:
- Have you felt leaned upon, this Lent? What are your experiences?
- What do you think of personally when you consider the idea and theme of "sacrifice"?
- How does the idea of God being "deeply concerned about us", help you when He asks you to make a personal sacrifice?