Friday, February 15, 2008


We are in the first full week of Lent and, on this Friday, I am aware of the battle of flesh and spirit. In preparation for Lent I gave intentional thought to specific disciplines I would embrace, with many of them in the context of fasting from foods (I am doing some other things as well with daily prayer and “fasting from TV,” among others). I love to eat. I think of things that would taste good and prepare them for our evening meal, which is often ready shortly after my wife comes home from work. I enjoy a wide variety of foods, and it is easy for me to find myself planning food delights throughout the day, throughout the week.

I did not grow up in a church tradition that observed Lent. That, along with few Catholics in my area of the South in the 50s/60s, meant that not eating meat on Fridays was almost unheard of. Now I am finding out how hard it is to do such a simple (?) thing. My wife and I have a circle of friends who are not Catholic, and it hardly occurs to them not to eat meat on Friday. Our own family patterns complicate it; our adult daughter, who lives with us, hates fish. I know that is not the only alternative, but it is one way to have a nice meal (and I only eat one true meal a day during Lent).

That last parenthetical phrase is not so “parenthetical.” It is actually the motivation for this entry. In the course of a day, this body of mine (and its carnal mind) — which likes to get what it wants when it wants it — sends all kinds of signals that it does not like what is going on. One of the most insidious is the recurring thought: “What does it matter if you just have a little something? It’s not a real sin.”

But isn’t that the nature of sin? It’s not always the object of the desire, but rather the attitude. It is my will demanding that “I want what I want right now!” I remember a story from an itinerant preacher who was a significant man in my early Christian life (he started the community where I went to college in southern Florida). He said that one day he was in his non-air-conditioned truck on a sultry Florida day and he thought of how good an ice cream cone would be. He passed a Dairy Queen and his mind yelled “Dairy Queen! Dairy Queen!” As he thought about it, he wanted that ice cream cone almost more than anything. Then the Holy Spirit convicted his heart, saying “is this going to control you?” He said he told himself out loud. “Shut up, you aren’t getting one!”

The historic Christian term for that is mortification — putting to death the desires of the flesh to be less controlled by temporal desire and to be more sensitive to the Spirit. Our culture can hardly comprehend such a thing. It sounds crazy. “Why deny a simple, non-harmful pleasure?”

But our desires can be devastatingly harmful to the life of the Spirit in us. Just like an athlete undergoes strict discipline to be able to perform incredible physical moves, just like a musician does boring scales over and over and over to be able to make beautiful music, the Christian who would be spiritually fit — showing in his or her life something of the glory of Jesus — must be able to turn away from lesser things in order to grasp the greater.

Mortification is an essential part of spiritual discipline. I am teaching the Book of Revelation right now, and Jesus has messages for seven congregations. There are commendations for those who are able to choose right over wrong; there is rebuke and a call to repent for those who are giving in to the pressures of the world around them. How will someone professing to follow Christ have the strength to say “no” to grave temptation and mortal (though intensely desirable) sin if he or she is not able to say “no” through the small disciplines Christians are to embrace in their spiritual training? Not eating meat on Friday and other dietary denials may be more connected to being able to say “no” to greed, lust and sloth than we have ever imagined.

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