Christians are supposed to be holy people. At least, so I’m told. Part of the disgust that non-Christians have for Christians stems from the fact that we don’t appear so different from them and yet we’re “supposed to be soooooo holy” (said with elementary school affect). There is some misunderstanding with this, of course. As Christians, we believe ourselves to be positionally holy, but very much still in transition as people. We’re not yet where we will one day be. So we Christians probably have more patience for each other than non-Christians do (well… sometimes). That’s ok. It’s an understandable point of confusion.
Christians have sought to correct this by over-correcting. “Oh I’m just a sinner saved by grace” or similar refrains. Well, yes, that is true. There isn’t anything fundamentally special about Christians. However… the New Testament seems to think differently about Christians. Christians shouldn’t be just like everyone else. The indwelling Spirit of God should make some sort of difference. At least you’d think. Perhaps the greatest degree of growth in holiness is, on this count, a self-understanding that is more and more keenly aware of a deep need for God’s mercy and kindness. All humans everywhere are in need of this mercy, but growth as a Christian seems to spring from a greater awareness of this need. I AM just a sinner saved by grace… but God has given that grace extravagantly and seated a sinner like me next to him as a son. That’s a fuller picture of the truth.
So here we are again at the point in the Church calendar where we look at ourselves and slap our faces and remind each other, “Oh wow. We are blooming and fading very quickly. We’re dust on a breeze. And we spend so much time making much of ourselves and ignoring God.” Lent is not about self-improvement so much as a proper inventory of the self before the face of God. It’s built into our calendar. We’re called, outside of our own initiative, to take a look at what’s under the spiritual hood and come back to basics:
We are small and frail. We need Jesus. And Jesus has everything we need.
I was telling someone today that my practice during this season is to find habits that are in my life and to pull them out. Not because they’re bad, in and of themselves, but because I just don’t know what’s behind them. What’s NOT there that could be there? I don’t know. That’s why I try to take those things out and see what rushes in to fill the void. I usually find out that I tend to fill my time with things that are like spiritual junk food. Instant gratification with zero actual benefit. I fill my time with french fries, basically. And while french fries are delicious, you probably shouldn’t have very many of them.
I gorge on french fries. (Metaphorically, of course. Never bodily.)
It’s very tempting to think I’m doing this and will earn some sort of merit for it. Tempting to think that I’m working myself into holiness. But one of the best things about having a view of God that says he’s big and active and takes initiative is that I can come back to the truth: any holiness in me is evidence of the Father coming after me. I’m a wastrel at heart, but God seems to be able to out-waste me with his love. I’m a miser. He’s a giver.
Disciplines aren’t about climbing the ladder of effort and spiritual greatness. They’re about ascending the ladder of Jesus into the life of the Trinity. The truth is, I don’t really know very well who or what I am. From moment to moment, my needle can swing from “A+ superstar of the universe who absolutely can and should judge everyone in sight” to “miserable worm feasting on death and decay.” Disciplines are about noise cancellation and learning to hear the steadiness of the Father’s needle for his people. The meter reads thus:
It never wavers off that one setting. I can’t muster enough of an appetite to even be the man I should be. I naturally bend over the work of effort and obligation. I can’t even get the taste in my mouth to be fully alive. But the needle never drops. It says the same thing.
Lent is about me being reminded of how little I deserve that and how much God offers instead of my silliness. Lent isn’t about an angry Father in the sky, counting the failures and deducting from some merit storehouse. Lent is about me and Jesus taking time every year to lay out the facts.
I waste my life; he out-wastes me with his love. I choose darkness; he doesn’t stop bringing the light. I am but dust; he breathes in me his life.
I can’t tell you whether I’m a sinner or a saint.
He tells me the truth.