Moving toward the reality of my sin and the truth of God’s gracious regard for me
By Layton Friesen
Will I ever be like Jesus in this life? Will I ever really have Christ’s insight and wisdom? Could I ever be that free of the love of money or the need for human approval? Could I ever gladly die for someone who hated me and wanted to kill me? Could I be that surrendered to the Father’s will? That’s a big question, isn’t it?
We know it is by grace that we become like Christ. It is through his gracious presence and power in our lives that he draws us to himself. But this does not mean that becoming like Jesus happens without my involvement. I can’t just lie anaesthetized on the table while God transplants my heart. Paul says in Colossians 1:29 (NRSV), “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.” That is the mystery of Christ in me, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). It is Christ in me who gives me the energy by which I struggle with all my strength to become the person I was created to be.
The mystery of sanctification
But how does this happen day to day? How do the power and personality of Christ within me come to be the energy within all my struggle?
One ancient piece of wisdom in the church says it happens by setting my calendar to the sequence of events in the life of Jesus. When my calendar, the plan and order of my days, mirrors the sequence of events in Christ’s life as told in the gospels, and when this happens decade after decade, I slowly become like Jesus. His time on earth moved from promise, to birth, to teaching and ministry, turning toward Jerusalem and the cross, down to the grave, through to the resurrection and ascension, culminating with the outpouring of the Spirit on the church.
Christ’s life can give a spiritual structure to my year like summer’s heat, autumn’s leaves, winter’s blast and spring’s new life. When this is not merely an external, formal thing but an inner daily contemplation of Christ it sanctifies my time.
Is Christ leading or are we pushing?
This is the season of Lent. These are the 40 days leading up to Easter during which we join Jesus on his way to the cross. Now, is Jesus leading us to the cross or are we pushing him to the cross? That is the great mystery of Lent.
On the one hand, in his journey to the cross, Christ is leading the way, repenting for my sin. As my representative substitute, Christ is taking on my guilt and repenting of it, offering himself as my regret, godly sorrow, turning from sin, and entrance into new life.
But on the other hand, the twelve disciples walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem live out my response to Christ’s repentance. Their lack of faith, manoeuvres for power, and ignorance are goaded out and exposed by the steep path Jesus is walking. As they walk with Jesus, they show themselves as sinners.
This is the mystery we enter during Lent. As we see ourselves in the disciples’ responses to Jesus, we take to ourselves Christ’s repentance on our behalf. During this time of Lenten repentance my “weaknesses” (the little mistakes I justify) become utterly sin. As I walk toward the cross it becomes evident these “cute” flaws are emerging as my own mounting resistance, evasion and rebel unbelief to the Christ. They will eventually bring me to lend a willing hand in the crucifixion of the Lord of glory. I will soon stand beside the sobbing Peter as the cock crows. “It was my sin that held him there.”
But not only do we enter into the experience of the disciples, we also come to share in Christ’s repentance for sin. Yes, Christ repented on our behalf, but not to shut us out of repentance. Rather he offered a repentance on our behalf so that we could enter in and truly repent by borrowing his repentance and making it our own. We repent with all the energy that his repentance on our behalf inspires within us.
Lent is thus a time to humble myself and become Christ’s disciple, moving from bumbling to honestly confessing my kiss of betrayal. To become humble is to stop telling lies to myself and simply stand before God fully consenting to the truth about me. That truth is both the reality of my sin and the truth of God’s gracious regard for me in providing a substitute. I can’t bear the thought that I am a sinner, nor can I bear the thought that God, knowing full-well what a sinner I am, loves me.
Fasting exposes the lies we tell ourselves
This is where fasting comes in. Lent is a time for fasting, because fasting is a time-proven way to expose the lies we tell ourselves. Decadent eating day after day covers the lies in my heart and allows these lies to remain potent. Lies can be sustained on a full stomach that become painfully obvious after several days without food.
The most dangerous lies are the ones we never say out loud, even to ourselves. These lies are hidden, unnamed assumptions we harbour about our self-sufficiency, and our capacity to overcome our sin. They may also be lies of despair, assuming we are despised by God, which can be a subtle way of evading responsibility for sin. Either way these lies need to be exposed, and fasting is one way we uncover the deception.
A regular habit or practice of fasting can help a person who wants to become a humble person who harbours no lies. Hunger drives us to admit the fierce power of our own appetites. It leads us to the place where we rest in the sufficiency of Christ’s provision for us, and we begin to resonate with Christ’s repentance as we turn from sin. This is especially so when fasting is accompanied by prayer, Scripture meditation and solitude.
The hazards of fasting
But fasting is not magic. It brings both hazards of achievement and hazards of despair. By achievement, fasting can paradoxically lead to a more insidious form of pride. Because it’s a steep path, getting to the end of a fast tempts one to feel like an elite Christian.
Another achievement hazard happens when fasting becomes a self-help project, and every Lent a time to find some new vice to give up this year as a way of improving my life. It won’t work. A short but temporary victory over an addiction only makes the vice stronger, since it leads us to believe we are still in control (Gerald May, Addiction and Grace). As a popular quip at times attributed to Mark Twain says, “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” The outcome of a disciplined, humble life before God will give me more power to overcome negative habits, but a fast alone will not break a bad habit.
There can also be hazards of defeat. Fasting is hard and its fruit grows slowly. It’s tempting to give up because it doesn’t immediately bring a flush of glory, and then kick myself for just not being very spiritual. But I need to remember that fasting is an exercise. You start slowly and build strength. If it’s not hard it’s not worth it. Like physical strengthening, spiritual strengthening happens by regularly exercising to the limits of our strength and finding there the grace of God.
One practical way to avoid both the hazards of achievement and despair during Lent is to break the fast on Sundays. Lent is normally counted 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays. By taking a break from our fast each Sunday we are given a weekly reminder of the resurrection, of the victory that is ours in Jesus. It prevents the fast from becoming an achievement, and it keeps the fast from being as daunting.
Christ has redeemed us
Lent is not a time for gloating self-improvement nor is it a time to kick ourselves across the yard. It’s a time where I come to know myself as one of those who killed Christ, and therefore as one whom Christ has redeemed and taken to himself. When I see myself as a “sinner” in this gospel-drenched, theologically dense way, his shout from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” becomes his prayer for me.That’s one of many other ways to become like Jesus. Becoming like Jesus takes discipline. It’s something we must practice. This is Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Layton Friesen is the Conference Pastor of the EMC. He lives in Winnipeg, Man., with his wife Glenda and they attend Fort Garry EMC. Layton has a PhD in theology from the University of St. Michaels College, Toronto. His book Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace was published by T&T Clark in February 2022.