“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Last summer, when I returned from sabbatical, I saw a picture of myself that had been taken the previous spring. You know how you get used to seeing yourself in the mirror and become so familiar that you hardly notice? And then you see a picture of yourself and you respond, “Really?”? Well, that was how I felt about this particular picture. I knew I had put on some weight, but yikes! I did a little research online and found that given my age and height, I was borderline obese. That was sobering. So I started watching what I eat and bought an exercise bike. I’ve lost 25 lbs. since and hope to lose another 10.
The process has been instructive spiritually. There is no easy way to get in better shape. I have been getting acquainted with a sort of self-denial. I have also come to realize how mindless was my eating before – undisciplined and ungrateful. I used to eat just about anything that was around without any thought of how much I was eating. No batch of cookies or bag of potato chips was safe in our house. But I also was not eating with any real gratitude. Sure I said my prayers before meals. But, then I just stuffed my face. It is quite different to take the time to savor what I eat – to really experience the miracle of say a ripe cherry tomato exploding with flavor in my mouth.
I have also come to a new appreciation of the wisdom of the ancient practice of fasting. Our ancestors taught that, because it is so basic to our lives, self-denial in our eating was the foundation of other more significant self-denial. And Jesus, in this morning’s gospel does call us to self-denial: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Let’s face it; the very idea of self-denial cuts against the grain of our society. We are an affluent and indulgent people – and Christians are just about as indulgent as anyone else. We are the people who are convinced we deserve a break today. We live in excess. Self-denial is not part of our vocabulary. Why are we to practice self-denial and what are we to deny ourselves? To what end?
All you have to do is drive around Chicago on the expressway to see evidence of our indulgence. Look at the billboards and ask yourself which of the seven deadly sins is being appealed to. Our indulgence in food has led to an epidemic of obesity. But, classically, gluttony does not refer only to overeating. Being finicky or obsessed with what one eats is also gluttony. When was the last time you confessed your gluttony to God? Greed, for sure; getting and having newer, bigger, and more, is what we are about. Lust, you bet; and not just the proliferation of “Gentlemen’s” Clubs. Almost anything can be advertised appealing to our lust. Of course, these do not just exist on billboards. We have become inured to their presence in our lives. When did we decide that greed, gluttony, and lust were no big deal? Each of those creates such spiritual static in our lives that we should not wonder that it can seem difficult to hear the still small voice of God calling in our hearts. One way or another, each interferes with our ability to truly love our neighbor.
But, while greed, gluttony, and lust are basic, we are also indulgent when it comes to deeper, more deadly sins. I suspect that my lack of discipline, ungratefulness, and excessive eating have been reflected in those areas of my life as well. And I suspect I am not alone.
Are we not indulgent when it comes to pride? Far from denying it, in our celebrity society, we celebrate it. We are infatuated with our own self-importance and self-sufficiency. Or we indulge in fantasies of our own uselessness and worthlessness which is a different sort of self-absorption. C. S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” And if we think of ourselves less, we can think more of God and others. The word that is where Jesus challenges us to do just that can also mean “disown” yourself or “de-center” yourself. But, one way or another, I am often full of myself. I wonder. If there was a spiritual camera that could take a picture revealing my pride, my self-centeredness, and self-absorption, how obese would I look? A photograph of that would not be pretty. Am I willing to deny my self?
Are we not indulgent when it comes to envy? You know that twinge of resentment when some good comes to another? I confess that sometimes I feel this when other clergy get some recognition or a clergy colleague tells me about their attendance numbers or some new program at their church. Which is really quite ridiculous because I get plenty of recognition and I don’t know of a church where I would rather serve than St. Barnabas. So what’s up with the envy? Or what about the other side of envy when we rejoice when something bad happens to those we dislike or with whom we disagree? Isn’t that tasty? Tasty, but not good for you. But, if there was a spiritual camera that could take a picture revealing my envy, how obese would I look? I do not think I would want that one on my refrigerator. Am I willing to deny myself the pleasure of envy?
We indulge in anger and malice. We almost celebrate it. We feel free to say or write the most disdainful things about others. Snarkiness has become so common as to be unremarkable. And we carry ill-will toward others without a qualm, feeling self-righteous in our anger and resentment. What if the camera took a picture revealing my anger? And not just how I look when I yell. What about my passive-aggressiveness? How about all the bitterness, resentment, and malice I store in my heart toward others? The impatience with which I engage people who I find difficult or just inconvenient? My lack of generosity of spirit toward others? The way I hold onto old slights and hurts? My unwillingness to love those who I have identified as an enemy – or think about and treat like an enemy even if I am not honest enough to name them as such? The picture of my excess would, I fear, reveal an obesity of anger. Am I willing to deny myself the satisfaction of my anger?
And of course, sloth is what keeps us from exerting the effort to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Jesus. It just takes too much effort. Or, we run around filling our lives with busyness to avoid doing so. We indulge in being spiritual and moral couch potatoes. Again, not a pretty picture.
“Deny yourself, take up the cross and follow.” That is Jesus’ challenge. I will not have the strength to take up the cross if I am content with being spiritually out of shape. I will not have the stamina to follow Jesus in his way of self-sacrificial love if I indulge myself and am obese in sin.
So in Lent we take on extra disciplines of self-denial to work a bit more at denying ourselves and getting ourselves in shape. But the disciplines of Lent are not meant to be unusual. They are supposed to be an intensification of disciplines and self-denial we practice all year. Classically there are three self-denying disciplines that are understood to be basic in getting us in shape:
Prayer: Prayer is self-denial inasmuch as it means sacrificing some time and attention. It is meant to de-center us and reorient us away from ourselves to the things of God.
Fasting: This is meant to get our biological desires under control – and not just eating. As I said, this is the foundation of other more significant self-denials. Indulging our every bodily desire makes it impossible to deny ourselves in more important “spiritual” matters.
Almsgiving: Given the way money and wealth mess with our minds and hearts and how we confuse our sense of self with how much stuff we have, this is critical. Certainly, giving to help those in need is an essential means of practicing compassion. But, the letting go of our wealth is an outward and visible sign of our giving away some of ourselves.
If we intend to be serious about it, we will look at ourselves and admit our excess. We will not indulge our gluttony, greed, or lust. We will not indulge in our pride, anger, and envy. We will not be content with spiritual flabbiness. We will attend to the obesity of our sin. We will seek ways to deny ourselves so we can take up the cross and follow Jesus. We will tend to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The point of all this is to open us up to God and our neighbor. John Chrysostom (347-407) said:
Do you fast?
Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see a poor man, take pity on him.
If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eye fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from fowl and fishes, but bite and devour one another?