My wife Beth and I are watching the Olympics this evening, but I'm also thinking about Ash Wednesday this week and the upcoming Lenten season.
Many of us will spend part of Wednesday with an ash cross upon our foreheads. Many of us will practice some kind of Lenten discipline, whether giving something up or adding something to our devotion. My question is: How can we prevent these practices from becoming self-centered rather than Christ-centered? To put it another way, how can our Lenten practices point to Christ rather than to ourselves?
To help answer these questions, I thought about a couple interesting passages from Paul, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Galatians 6:12-15. The first passage alludes to the original Greek sports. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Someday I may make a list of Paul passages that I wish he had expressed better or differently; this is one. Obviously Paul would never teach salvation by works, but a person unfamiliar with Galatians and other letters might use this 1 Cor. 9 passage as a proof-text for "earning" God’s love. We never ever ever earn God's love; it's simply ours in abundance. That's why Paul is so grateful for the empowering cross of Christ, as discussed below.
Understood in context with the whole letter, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 refers to the self-discipline we need to love. We can certainly be very disciplined Christians--evidenced at Lent--but we’re wasting our time unless our spiritual practices lead to love, kindness, gentleness, and other gifts sketched by Paul in Galatians 5. (This, by the way, applies not just to Lent but to spiritual retreats like Emmaus, service ministries at your church, small groups, and other ways.) So the aim of spiritual practices is to curb our selfish inclinations so that we can display the lovingkindness and compassion that will definitely "show Christ" and not just proclaim Christ.
This point is depicted even more startlingly in the second Paul passage. Several years ago I wrote a short study book, Paul and the Galatians, for Abingdon Press. Paul’s hope that the pro-circumcision teachers at Galatia would “castrate themselves” (Gal. 5:12) is a notorious text. I think an equally startling text is just a few sentences down.
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal. 6:12-15).
The explicit bitterness of Gal. 5:12 makes it a more obvious put-down than Gal. 6:12-13, which, you might notice, contains a double entendre. “Flesh” (sarx) means the sphere of human existence--a word usually used by Paul in distinction to God’s Spirit---but “flesh” here can mean the circumcision itself. To restate Paul more crudely, the pro-circumcision teachers are boasting about their penises (i.e., their circumcision), and they want to boast about the Galatian men's penises, too (i.e., to boast about converts to their belief that circumcision is necessary for Gentile Christians)!
Expressed so rudely and absurdly, the whole issue is clearer: boasting about our own righteousness is foolish. Only the amazing gifts of God--the cross of God and the consequent gift of the new creation through the Holy Spirit--are properly boasted about, according to Paul.
I’m very aware how regrettable is Paul’s language for contemporary Jewish-Christian fellowship. Paul faced different issues and a different circumstance than our own time, when many of us are seeking to help heal centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Paul is upset here, not because he is prejudiced against Jews and their religion, but because he believes God has opened up amazing possibilities for Gentiles via God’s faithfulness to the Jews. Jews had always had (male) circumcision, but the Galatians were Gentiles and had never been required to adopt this Jewish sign of the covenant. And yet the Holy Spirit had been given to the Galatians--thus including Gentiles within God's covenant-faithfulness--without them doing anything to earn or deserve such a gift! God had already given them freedom and equal standing as heirs and children (Gal. 4:7). For Paul, this was an amazing, wonderful blessing for the Galatians (and others).
That's why Paul was so angry; the pro-circumcision teachers convinced the Galatians that they had to “make sure” they were truly within God’s will. For Paul, that was tantamount to saying that God’s gifts of freedom and equal standing as heirs was unsatisfactory; just in case the Holy Spirit is not enough, we need to “cover our bases" by adding a traditional rite. But how could the Holy Spirit be not enough?
As we study the Bible, we discover numerous gifts of transformation that the Holy Spirit provides as we’re touched by God’s love.
· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.
· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God
· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.
· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)
· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person
· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).
· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances
· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.
· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.
To connect these gifts to our Lenten disciplines: we must keep in mind that these gifts are not characteristics that we’re supposed to achieve through will-power and discipline. Nor are our disciplines add-on rites about which to boast as if they, in themselves, make us righteous. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). Paul is being sarcastic again--of course no law (including laws stipulating circumcision) would create these qualities. They are gifts of the Spirit’s “new creation”. We, in turn, can open ourselves to the Spirit's love as we seek to understand more fully the depth of God's love.
Paul’s affirmation in Galatians 6 can be an excellent guide and focus during the upcoming season. Everything relies upon the power of God through the cross of Christ and the transforming Holy Spirit, and whatever personal righteousness I might bring to the table counts as nothing. How wonderfully freeing is that?! And yet our Lenten disciplines are not worthless because God can use them--and, indeed, God can lead us into undertaking them. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 alerts us that the power of God can tragically elude us if we're not careful. And so, aware of how easily we can become unloving, we strive to focus on seeking the Spirit's gifts of love, kindness, and gentleness which, in turn, show Christ.