This past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent (if you’re unfamiliar with Lent, check out this post inviting you along for the journey). As a result, I have been thinking about self-denial and how the thought makes many Evangelicals uncomfortable. Yet Lent is a season of self-denial, and so if we are going to join the Church in this tradition, we must look closely at where our discomfort is coming from.
Most of us can understand giving up bad things. Smoking is not good for your lungs, so sure, we should encourage others to give that up. It makes sense. The benefit is clear: no smoking = better health. But giving up good things? That’s obscene. Why should I deny myself something good? Didn’t God give it to us to enjoy?
My fear is that Evangelicals feel like this because we have separated heaven from earth. In other words, earthly things are good in themselves and do not rely on God in any way; they are separate. However, go back in time 1,000 years and you would get some confused looks if you shared that in a church. This separation has not always been the way Christians viewed the world. For example, Augustine firmly believed and explained that all things are to be used for the enjoyment of God. In other words, there is only one good that we should seek to enjoy in itself, and that’s God. All other things only are good insofar as they derive their goodness from him.
Today, we have lost that sacramental connection. Instead, food becomes a good in itself, wine becomes a good in itself, even a relationship becomes a good in itself. The end (meaning goal or purpose) of earthly things are no longer heavenly, but simply earthly, or for humanity’s own pleasure. And in light of this, why would we ever deny ourselves anything? If the end of earthly things is earthly, then consuming and enjoying is all there is.
But what if there’s more? What if the earth, this wonderful, beautiful, good creation points us heavenward? What if we ourselves find our final end not in our day-to-day lives on this earth, but in a reality that will be thoroughly divinized when the heavenly Jerusalem comes down to earth? Surely, then, a season of self-denial would be valuable.
Self-denial reminds us that the things of earth are not good in themselves. It is a way of declaring that God alone is Goodness, Truth and Beauty and that we long for the pure taste of his presence. In light of our striving heavenward, self-denial makes a whole lot more sense because we are not denying ourselves things that are good in themselves – we are denying ourselves good things to reflect our desire for God, who is Good.
It’s not too late to practice some self-denial with the Church this Lenten season. I encourage you to consider it and may we all seek God as our final end.