Real Freedom Found in Abstinence

I’m giving up certain foods for Lent, a part of the Christian tradition that’s not nearly as universally recognized as Christmas and Easter.  I’ll leave the historical background of this season for others to explain.  My point in writing is to ponder this simple question:

What’s gained by abstaining from a certain food, or from Facebook, or  TV, or reading blogs (please no!) for a season?

It’s a good question.  In fact, Colossians 2:20-23 says, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (living this way has) …the appearance of wisdom…but is of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

Taken at face value, this passage is decidedly ‘anti-Lent’ and one gets the feeling that the best thing to do is to celebrate our liberty in Christ by indulging continually.  Self-denial and abstinence will only lead to pride (if you succeed) or condemnation/hypocrisy (if you fail) so why do this at all?  What’s more, we’re told that submitting to structures of abstinence aren’t the final answer in dealing with our dark side.

This kind of thinking illustrates the danger of taking any Bible passage, in isolation, to make a point.  You can prove just about anything if you use the Bible that way.  Suddenly slavery is perfectly justified, as is killing your children for shouting at you, and of course this passage, which one could use to encourage drunkenness and gluttony.  “Don’t mind me,” we say, as we go on our merry way, “I’m so ‘dead to this world’ that I can eat, drink, and have sex anytime at all!”

That’s one way of looking at it…but it’s the wrong way.

The bigger picture of the early church is that fasting was a regular part of life.  Jesus presumed it, and Paul wrote about agreed upon sexual abstinence between husband and wife as if it were a normal thing to do.  Later Paul explains that it’s vital that we not become slaves to any indulgence.  There are several good reasons for this:

1. Real freedom means not only the freedom to indulge, but the freedom to abstain.  If I can’t wake up without my coffee, there’s something wrong, because now I’ve become a slave to it.  If I can’t survive without my morning run, or can’t go a day without Facebook, or find it nearly impossible to turn my smart phone off because being connected is so important….there’s something wrong.  All the gifts:  food, sex, exercise, even connection with others, can rise up enslave us if we can’t say no them.  When that happens, they’re no longer gifts—they’re masters—and they’ll destroy us.

2. We don’t know when abstinence will be forced upon us—so we’re invited to learn contentment. Paul came to a point where he could say, “Poverty or prosperity, being full or going hungry, living in abundance or suffering need: I’m content in all of it!”  It’s a truly remarkable statement, but we’ve no idea of it’s remotely true of us unless we’re able to skip a meal once in a while, or turn off the TV, or drink water instead of wine.  The discipline of Lent helps us learn contentment.  Later in the week, I hope to develop these thoughts further by writing about earthquakes, but for now it’s enough to say that all we enjoy, we enjoy because of grace—as a gift, not a right.  Holding gifts with an open hand will help us function better when the gift isn’t available.

3. Love and service will call us to abstain at various points.  Paul explains this in I Corinthians 8 when he says, “Therefore, if food causes me brother to stumble…I will never eat meat again.”  Imagine altering your diet out of deference to someone else’s faith.  That’s true liberty—mature enough to indulge, but mature enough to know that indulging isn’t that important.

People who are free are free to indulge, but they recognize that every gift of God has a time and place, and so they practice abstinence with enough of a degree of regularity that they’re learning to be flexible—culturally malleable so that they’re able to share a beer in Europe or avoid one in Nepal—whatever the moment demands.  Such people are robust, joy filled servants, freed as they are from addiction to liberty.

What are you giving up for Lent…and why?

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  • Jeremiah

    I think you have made an excellent point here Richard. In fact this morning I was meditating on the fact that at any point things can be taken away from us. Whether it is our health, our finances, our job, our right arm, our family, etc… This made me want to try even harder to lose myself in Christ. So that my identity is so found in him that even the loss of one of these things or the abstinence from one of these things would not create an identity crisis!

    Also, for lent, I’m trying to think beyond what I can give up, but what I can give. I feel called to do more than avoid doing or ingesting things, but to actually give of what I have or give of who I am. I pray that the Holy Spirit will daily show me how I can give more this season of Lent in order that I can learn to cling to the Lord even more for my daily bread.

  • Sandra Boedecker

    I wasn’t feeling moved to give anything up for Lent this year until I went to Ash Wednesday service and heard this message. I elected to give up music (when I have control over it, like the car stereo, my iPod at the gym, and our home stereo). Why? I’ve discovered that I feel the need for “noise” to fill silence, and that this can make me miss opportunities to hear God. So far it’s been a success. I do know from past experience, though, that eventually it can just seem like the new norm, which is why it’s a good practice to abstain *for a season.* Thanks for the reminder that these seasons are a necessary part of growth. Hopefully after Easter I’ll continue the practice of listening more closely for God OUTSIDE of my official “quiet time.”

  • thefoutz

    This Lent season I’m not giving anything up. I prayed about it a lot and didn’t really get a sense of anything that I should give up. Maybe I’m wrong here, but nothing specific popped out at me, so I didn’t feel compelled to abstain from anything.
    However, as a person who struggled with overeating for a long time, I am constantly aware of how quickly the things in my life – whether it’s Facebook, movies, music, ice cream or alcohol – can become little hard spots in my heart. Even though there’s nothing I’m giving up at this moment, I think that there’s something to be said for having the “freedom to abstain.” In a world that constantly wants me to connect and interact, I think it’s important to constantly reevaluate how much of myself I’m giving to anything. After all, it’s my relationship with Christ that I’m going to take with me. The DVD player, the Ben and Jerry’s and my cell phone are going to burn in the end.

  • Nate Collins

    Wait, so what does this have to do with lent? It sounds like you’re saying it’s important to make sure we’re not controlled by things, whether it’s chocolate, coffee, alcohol, Glee, fail blog, music, whatever. I agree completely. I appreciate your observations from scripture. Isn’t this just part of life though? It seems like a 40 day fast from something once a year is a poor substitute for working at being wise with our habits all the time. I wonder if it would be better to live daily by asking ourselves, “Am I doing this because I’m thankfully enjoying the gifts God has given me or am I doing it because I think I need it or because I’m trying to numb frustration or loneliness?” Finally, I’m no expert on lent, but I thought the idea was that it was supposed to somehow be related to Easter, not simply a yearly checkup on whether we’ve become too dependent on something. Isn’t there supposed to be something deeper going on? I don’t mean to sound antagonistic. These are real questions I have. I’ve never really understood lent and I would like to.

  • I’m with you, Nate. Since I grew up in a non-Christian home, these traditions have been hard for me to follow. I do have some legit reasons in my head why I participate in any of them, Lent included, but as far as the deeper spiritual meaning, I’m still wrestling with that.