When Lenten Traditions Miss the Point
Whether you splurged on Fat Tuesday, observed Ash Wednesday, or vowed to live without a particular food, drink or bad habit for the next 40 days, Lent began this week. It’s the period in the church calendar commemorating Jesus Christ’s temptation by the devil in the wilderness, his subsequent crucifixion, and the celebration of his glorious resurrection.
But what if the focus on all of the secular activities distracts us (and non-Christians too) from understanding the real relevance of what a life surrendered to Jesus means? People think of living a surrendered life in terms of sacrificing something during Lent, or moral purity or having to go to church every Sunday.
Now, a surrendered life can include those things, but they can also cause us to miss the point. Lent is not merely about surrendering to lists of do’s and don’ts, to mere moralism, to religion. If that were the case, then Christianity would be no better than an ethical system of right versus wrong. Christianity is not a philosophy of behavior modification. When people think it is, and act like it is, it leads to some people feeling pretty good about themselves, and everybody else so turned off that they wouldn’t touch Christianity and the church if their lives depended on it.
But what if surrender had a good connotation? Like surrendering to love, or surrendering your guilt and shame? In that sense, surrender is a good thing. When I surrender something bad, I’m letting go.
And this is exactly what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 16: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’” (Matthew 16:24-26, ESV)
So, what does living a life of surrender look like, not just during Lent? In the passage above, the emphasis is on the Person you’re following, not the cross you’re bearing. Denying yourself (submission) and taking up your cross are not ends unto themselves. They are means to the end. The end is following Jesus. The point is following Jesus. We are submitting to a Person, not a thing, not an ideology, not theology, not a religion, not moralism.
When we submit to Jesus, it’s because we want to come after him. We want to follow him. We are so grateful for his love and how he has rescued us from the clutches of sin and a life of pain, that we willingly surrender to him. And when we do that, we’re on the path to freedom. It all boils down to this—what’s the destination of the road you’re on? What’s the end game?
It’s not, “Join Jesus’ team, and you’ll be healthy, wealthy and wise.” Here’s the message: follow Jesus, and your life will never be the same. You will have a purpose in your life to help change the world, and the more you take the focus off your centered self and put it on what Jesus calls you to be and do, you will find the peace that surpasses all understanding. Actually, that peace will find you.