It's five days into Lent - a 40 day (not including Sundays) period of time involving prayer, fasting, repentance, and penance leading up to the celebration of Easter. Lent is observed by many Christians, most notably those in the Roman Catholic church and other orthodox churches. One common aspect of the observance of Lent is the practice of giving something up as a penitential act of self-denial. In Catholicism, abstaining from meat on Fridays is also a Lenten requirement, and further fasting is encouraged. I grew up in a Catholic household that took these aspects of the preparation for Easter seriously, so I am familiar with the concept of giving things up for spiritual reasons. As a Christian adult, my perspective has changed. I am no longer Catholic, and for me the weeks leading up to Easter do not involve the same ritual observances as they did when I was growing up. But I still believe that the act of denying our flesh has great spiritual significance.
Consider the example of Christ. Philippians 2:6-8 says that Christ, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross." What could be a greater example of self-denial? God giving up his right to act as God.
Before he went to the cross, Jesus told his disciples that anyone wishing to follow him would have to deny himself and take up his cross daily. Each day Christians have to make the decision to ignore the sinful desires of our flesh. The whole Christian experience involves a continual giving up of our flesh to the Holy Spirit's work to make us more like Christ.
Here's the truth: The things that are most important for us to give up must be given up 365 days a year, not just the weeks before Easter. But there are times that God will call us to give up something else. Something that may hold more sway in our life than is spiritually healthy. For instance, that morning coffee that we depend on to silence our demon of crankiness. Sometimes God will ask us to give something up to teach us a spiritual lesson. Other times he will ask us to make a sacrifice for no reason except that our obedience glorifies him. The sacrifice is in itself an act of worship.
I've had two occasions recently where I gave something up and received great spiritual blessing as a result. The first was last April when I did a 6 day milk fast, consuming only raw milk and water. Fasting has been used for thousands of years to bring about heightened spiritual awareness and focus on the Lord (for a specific need or just spiritual renewal) by denying one of our most basic needs. In contrast, my reason for this fast was primarily physical, not spiritual. But, through it God showed me some sinful aspects of my relationship with food that I wasn't truly aware of before. And I learned that the Lord can take any act of self-denial and use it to grow us - if we're open to it.
The other occasion was this past December. I can't remember the trigger moment - the thing that I thought, said, or did that made the Holy Spirit put up a big light in my path.
Flashing neon words: self-reflection detour.
I realized that I had a strong tendency to be critical. Not always in a judgmental way, but that line is hard to distinguish when one is not taking the time to look carefully for it. Immediately I knew I had to give up being critical for the remainder of the month. Even if my criticisms were valid. Even if they really weren't hurting anyone. If it was still important to say in January, then I could say it. I plan to write a blog post sometime soon about that experience. For now, I'll just say that this unexpected call from the Lord to hold my tongue (and fingers) from expressing any criticism for a time was a tremendous blessing.
That was April and December of last year. Random.
The point is that the right time to sacrifice is the time when God asks you to. If you are a Catholic and faithfully follow your religion in giving something up for Lent, God will bless you in that. But you must also be open to the Lord leading you to a period of self-denial at other times of the year.
For Christians who do not feel obligated to give things up based on dates on the calendar or a religious season - understand that denying oneself can bring great spiritual blessing. Perhaps preparation for Easter is the right time for you. You won't know unless you go before God and ask. And always be ready to respond when he calls you to it.
So whether it's the daily taking up of your cross, or giving up something for a time, denying oneself is an essential component of the Christian life, whether you observe Lent or not.