“Would you like half my brownie?”
“No thanks,” my friend said. “I’ve given up sugar for Lent.”
Guilt pinched my heart. I glanced around my church’s fellowship hall, filled with folks enjoying their meal. How many of them had also sacrificed something for Lent? I’d never given up anything during Lent. But should I?
40 Days of Sacrifice
For almost 2,000 years, Christians have set aside time for self-examination and repentance during the weeks before Easter. Early church fathers and the Council of Nicea (AD 325) observed days of fasting—from a few days to 40 days—but it was Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) who established the 40-day season between Ash Wednesday and Easter that many 21st-century Christians observe.[i]
Neither my family nor the church I attended as a child paid much attention to the Lenten season. Instead, they focused on the joyous celebration of our Risen Savior. In my adulthood, however, I’ve attended churches that offer Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. Currently, I attend a church that offers Ash Wednesday services and Lenten Bible studies. I’ve learned to appreciate the somber time of reflection these services and studies provide.
The Danger of Lent
Many Christians view Lent as an opportunity to refocus attention on God’s love for us, so great a love that he sent his son to die for our sins. Giving up something we love—a food or an activity—to remind us of God’s sacrificial love can be beneficial to our spiritual growth, especially if we replace it with a spiritual discipline such as Bible reading, prayer, or fasting. During Lent, we can evaluate our spiritual health—how well the life of the Risen Christ is being manifest in us.
But I also see the danger of setting aside certain days for self-examination and repentance. Any spiritual practice can devolve into a hollow ritual; viewing some days as holier than others can lead to hypocrisy. We may develop a Lenten and non-Lenten attitude as easily as we develop a Sunday and non-Sunday mind-set, falling into the sin Jesus exposed in the Pharisees: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain” (Matthew 15:8-9 NIV).
The Sacrifice That Pleases God
Many Scriptures remind us that physical sacrifices are only valuable if they’re given from a wholly devoted heart. The prophet Samuel told King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). And David wrote, “You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it.…The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit…a broken and humbled heart” (Psalm 51:16-17 HCSB).
The Old Testament prophets consistently spoke out against sacrifices that were futile attempts to cover sinful actions. Jesus also criticized the religious leaders for offering sacrifices that meant nothing (Matthew 23:23-25). The same could be said of any spiritual practice we undertake for the wrong reason, whether it be Sunday morning worship, small-group Bible study, volunteer work, or personal devotional time.
Another danger of setting aside special times of sacrifice is our tendency to ignore these practices the rest of the year. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (NLT). It’s the daily-ness of sacrifice that most interests God and best reflects our commitment to him—a 365-day devotion to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8).
The Daily-ness of Sacrifice
When Paul told the Romans to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, I think he had in mind the daily-ness of sacrifice (12:1-2). My commitment to Jesus should involve the following:
- Daily contemplation of the price Jesus paid for my sins and my inability to meet God’s standard of righteousness
- Daily commitment to rely more on the Holy Spirit and less on myself
- Daily reflection on the endless supply of God’s mercy and grace
- Daily gratitude for the ways he allows me to be his hands and feet in a hurting world
Motivation is everything. David said the one thing he desired was spending time in God’s presence (Psalm 27:4). He also spoke of daily fulfilling his vows to the Lord (Psalm 61:8). Another psalmist wrote that he thirsted for God like a deer thirsts for water (Psalm 42:1-2). Again, there’s the daily-ness factor. After all, how many times a day does a deer seek water?
Seven Ideas to Practice Sacrifice
Here are a few ways we can turn 40-day sacrifices into 365-day spiritual practices:
- Attend weekly worship services at a local church.
- Establish a daily Bible reading program. Start with Mark, the shortest gospel. Read 15-20 verses a day and you’ll finish by Easter.
- Establish a daily prayer time. Start with one thank-you and one request in the morning and in the evening. Add more thank-yous, requests, and prayer times as God directs.
- Look for opportunities to share with someone why you celebrate Easter or other religious holidays.
If the above practices are already part of your routine, consider adding these:
- Join a weekly small-group Bible study.
- Invest one hour a month at a local shelter, soup kitchen, or other community program. Make clear that you serve because of what Jesus has done for you.
- Spend time with at least one neighbor each month. Speak about your faith in Christ if the opportunity arises.
The One Who Gave Himself for You
The core of the Easter message is the new life available to every person because of the redemption Jesus provided through his death and resurrection. If we’ve accepted Jesus as Savior, we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). And, as Paul told the Galatian churches, “The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20 MSG).
If we spend the weeks before Easter cultivating a spiritual practice that makes our new life more evident to others year-round, we honor the Risen Christ who gave us that life, don’t we?