Lenten Devotion 2015: Grace Vs Karma (Part II)

Mother-Teresa-HD-Download-Wallpapers-311_editedA friend of mine made some interesting comments about my last post on Karma vs Grace. It helped me think more on the topic and since many of you may have the same concerns, but won’t read the “comments” section here, I thought it would be helpful for all if I posted the edited version of my response.

I don’t claim knowledge of any religious system, but I am on a spiritual journey and value any help and route corrections by fellow travelers.

Karma has different meanings. The doctrine of Karma and its meaning is quite complex and it has also evolved over different periods of Indian religions. So, it will take sizable space and time to be expounded.

Let us not confuse the meaning of karma as an “act” or “action,” that is a necessity for everyone’s existence, with the “karma” as a theological concept or as a law of causality (cause and effect) employed to explain the sufferings of life just like it is done in every religious system. What is meant by “karma” as a sacrificial or ritual “act” (as in karmakanda) during the Vedic period is not the same meaning of karma as one’s moral obligation used in the later literature of “the Epic Period” of which the Bhagwad Geeta is a part.

Most believers of karma understand individual karma to mean: “If I do X, then Y happens; and Y is the result of my past X action.” Good actions reap good results and bad actions result in suffering and pain. However, they’re at a loss to understand and explain when something happens at a large scale such as an accident in which several people die or a natural calamity (an act of God!?) such as tsunami that claims thousands of lives. Whose karma was it the result of? Was it the result of collective karma of all who died or the result of the karma of individuals themselves? It is difficult to answer these questions for the believers in individual karma; therefore, it is also difficult for them to justify engagement in removing of societal injustices and wrongs. It is also hard to motivate believers of karma to engage in helping others for the betterment of their life, which is actually the result of their own actions in the past. Furthermore, believers of karma do not like the idea that they’re at the mercy of an omnipotent and omniscient God. Logically speaking, if one fully believes in the law of causation, there is no room for an omnipotent celestial Being; hence, there is no place for grace or mercy in one’s life!

Moreover, since X happens because of Y, and Y is the result of X, it naturally leads one into a vicious cycle, which the followers of karma call the “karma samsara” or the cycle of rebirths. The goal of an individual is to escape this karmic cycle. As only an individual is wholly responsible for his/her actions, he/she alone should strive for moksha or liberation from the karma samsara, without any outside help. Because of your X actions, Y is the result; so you’re not committing any “sin” against a Supreme Being. Hence, there’s no need or room for any grace of that Supreme Being.

As for the concept of karma in the biblical literature; yes, there is no denying that the concept exists as it has been part of almost all religions. However, it is the doctrine of grace and its absolute necessity for the believer’s life and salvation and not karma that is emphasized in the Bible (please see the first few chapters of the book of Romans). Yes, the Bible and particularly the New Testament talk about good works (karma) and the need for a believer to engage in good deeds. However, the most significant difference here is that the forgiveness of our sins, our salvation now and the eternal life after death are NOT dependent on our deeds however good they might be. That is absolutely the work of grace by God which we need to appropriate by faith. As the Apostle Paul clearly states, we are not saved BY good deeds but by grace FOR good deeds:

“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2: 3- 10).

Some might cite Galatians 6: 7– “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” as belief in the karma worldview. However, it must be seen in the larger context of what the Apostle Paul is saying to the believers who are already saved by grace. He’s not exhorting them to do good deeds for their future salvation or eternal life. Paul said that it is seeding time now and the reaping time will be later in the afterlife. Therefore, believers should be busy doing the sowing by engaging in good deeds of the spirit than carnal deeds. Again, like Paul writes in Ephesians, these good deeds are done not to earn our salvation because that is by grace alone, but because we are saved by grace for doing good deeds. That is why Mother Teresa and millions of other believers have engaged in doing good to others.

Grace cannot be grace if you have to work for it. Instead, grace is what you need but don’t deserve! It is the sheer mercy of God which He decides to grant me what I need it but don’t merit it through my works/actions—good or bad. That is grace. May the Lord continue to lead us all into the deeper spiritual recesses of the grace of God during this Lenten season. Blessings!

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Lenten Devotions 2015: Grace Vs Karma

GraceThe main reason people are still talking about Mother Teresa and her ministry to the destitute in Kolkata is due to the worldview she adhered to in her life. Teresa’s worldview—the way she looked at the world and in particular fellow human beings—was that of grace. The rich and capable people who could serve the poor with their resources chose not to do so mainly because of their worldview. This worldview is characterized by karma. If you subscribe to the worldview of karma, you would indubitably believe the popular sayings such as:

“We reap what we sow…we sow what we reap”

“If the good is sown, the good is collected”

“What goes around comes around”

“Do good and good will come back to you”

“People pay for what they do”

“You get what you give, whether it’s bad or good.”

Thus, the natural corollary of karma worldview is that you do not engage with the world and its problems. You leave the world to go the way it is destined to go. You leave people in their sufferings for that is their destiny due to their past karma. You do nothing to alleviate misery and poverty. You do not spend time and resources in researching the root causes of sicknesses and produce better treatments, medicines, and vaccines, and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the worldview of grace, you would realize that we are not good enough in ourselves and need the grace of God to save us. Grace means God loved us so much that he decided to reveal himself fully to us in and through Jesus Christ (John 3: 16). The grace of God not only saves us from sins but enables us to be a channel of His grace to others (I Corinthians 15: 10). In short, the following summarize the effects of a worldview of grace:

Grace enables you to see the world in light of hope.

Grace enables you to find beauty, hope, positivity, and possibilities all around you.

Grace helps you see people in misery through the eyes of God and God does not just sit around doing nothing. Rather, He works out the grace through us to find solutions for the problems of the world.

Grace makes you recognize that you are already part of the Kingdom of God; therefore, you would do everything possible to not only pray but also help bring the Kingdom of God on earth.

Grace empowers you to see yourself as salt and light in the world; therefore, your words and actions would reflect the characteristics of salt and light.

This Lenten season, therefore, let’s pause to consider which worldview defines us: karma or grace? Which perspective would you like to view the world with? Some of us who are saved by nothing but grace still think and operate under the law of karma. For example, some think that by doing a few pious looking deeds such as giving up meat or chocolate they could keep Lent holy and please God while their lives remain unchanged. May the grace of God dispel such thinking from us and may we choose to be a channel of God’s free-flowing grace in the needy world.

Lenten Devotions 2015: Karma, grace, love, and service.

Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of a Hindu fundamentalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), recently raised a storm in India by his callous, ignorant, and malicious comment on Mother Teresa. Bhagwat remarked that behind all her social service of helping the orphans and poor people, Mother Teresa had a “hidden agenda” of converting them to her Christian faith. Many people in India and abroad, including prominent Hindus, have taken exception to Bhagwat’s comments. The Upper House of the Parliament of India, too, discussed the matter and has demanded an apology from Mr. Bhagwat. However, this is not a new issue in India as it is tied to the debate on religious conversion, and India has always shown aversion to conversion.

Therefore, the question I want to deal with today relates to the reason Mother Teresa did what she did, that is, serving the poor in India. The first thing to note is that Mother Teresa found the streets and slums of Kolkata lined up with destitute lepers, orphans, disabled people, elderly parents deserted by their well-to-do children, and young children abandoned on the streets because they were either born out-of-wedlock or born with deformities.

Secondly, one must pause to think, why did Mother Teresa encounter what she did in Kolkata? Why did people behave as they did with their sick relatives and disabled children or parents? The answer is very simple: because of their belief in the theory of karma. People believed and continue to hold that whatever you suffer today in your life is the consequence of your karma in the past life. If one is born with physical deformities or develops sicknesses like leprosy, it is the curse of deities as well as the punishment for their bad karma. No one can do anything to alter the consequences of bad karma. And if I do well in my life, it is because of my good karma. Therefore, I should fully enjoy my life without being bothered about those suffering around me due to their bad karma.

Thirdly, why did Mother Teresa choose to intervene in the lives of destitute suffering in the slums of Kolkata? Why would she decide to leave the comfort and security of a convent to go out and risk her life and dignity serving on the filthy streets of Kolkata? It is certainly not because there were no wealthy people in the city with money to spare for the poor and needy. It is also not because there were no hospitals to look after the lepers and abandoned children and the elderly. It is definitely not because there was dearth of temples and ashrams in the city. Nope, none of the above is true. She did it, instead, because of her livid vibrant faith in Jesus Christ, which she always openly acknowledged. She never hid the fact that it is the love of Christ that compelled her to engage what others had conveniently ignored. If Mother Teresa also believed in the theory of karma, it would not lead her to helping others. Thank God that she believed in the inherent dignity, value, equality, and worth of human beings as they are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1: 27) and not as low-caste or high-caste people. Mother Teresa also believed in the grace of God freely available to all people irrespective of their caste and creed and particularly to the destitute, needy, rejected, disabled, abandoned, marginalized, and oppressed human beings in our society. Her faith in Jesus Christ and his command—“love your neighbors as yourself”—did not limit her to keep her time, talents, and resources to herself or to waste them on feeding animals, birds, or idols; instead, her faith led her to use them in the service of fellow human beings who were created in the image of God just like herself. May our belief in the love of God and his grace lead us, too, to be in the service of humanity wherever we find a need around us. Amen.

Lenten Devotions 2015: Forgiveness is a command!

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We saw yesterday that the relatives of 21 young Coptic Christians from Egypt were able to forgive ISIS murderers because of their faith in Jesus Christ. It is precisely this aspect which differentiates the Christian faith from other religions. In his discourse on the Kingdom ethics, Jesus Christ so unequivocally stressed forgiveness that Apostle Peter had to ask him for a clarification as he could not believe that Jesus would recommend forgiveness in such a way.

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18: 21)

It was not a common practice in Israel or anywhere else in Jesus’ time to offer forgiveness to someone who is bent upon hurting and offending you. Therefore, Peter thought he was too generous by asking if one could forgive seven times, as the number seven in the Bible represents completeness and perfection. (“Seven” is used about 735 times in the Bible. It appears to be derived from the seven days of creation by God and that the Sabbath was on the 7th day of the week. For further significance of the number seven, please read: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/09/26/what-does-the-number-seven-7-mean-or-represent-in-the-bible/).

To Peter’s astonishment, Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18: 22 NIV). Or, as in other versions: “seventy times seven” (KJV, NASB, ASB). Of course, Jesus did not mean to forgive 7, 70, or even 490 times. Jesus was not dealing with numbers or mathematics at all but with something deeper at a spiritual level. What he wanted for Peter and his followers to understand is that, in the Kingdom ethics, which Jesus had come to establish, forgiveness doesn’t depend on a specific number. Just as God’s grace and forgiveness is freely available to the sinner, our forgiveness need to be unlimited. It should be offered whenever the occasion arises. Jesus also knew that the average lifespan of a person is about seventy years as Psalm 90: 10 had observed. Therefore, the followers of Jesus are commanded to forgive as long as the offender lives. That would be a complete and perfect forgiveness according to Jesus.

Apostle Paul understood this very well. That’s why he wrote to the church in Ephesus:

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4: 32).

Paul repeats it again:

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3: 13)

What is our attitude to forgiveness today? Are we calculating when it comes to forgiving others who have offended us? Are we keeping a record of all people who wronged us and the number of times we have given them a second chance? May the words of our Lord lead us today to offer complete and unlimited forgiveness to whoever needs it. Amen.

Lenten Devotions 2015: How is forgiveness possible?

I am sure you have either read about or watched in horror how the ISIS beheaded 21 young Coptic Christians from Egypt. These young men left their homes and loved ones in Egypt and came to Libya to earn their livelihood and support their families. They had no idea what awaited them in Libya. These 21 Egyptians were singled out to be slaughtered by ISIS only because of their Christian faith. They were asked to deny their faith in Christ, which they all refused to do, instead they chose to embrace a martyr’s death with the name of their Lord Jesus Christ on their lips till their last breath. However, as with most incidents of persecution, a very positive outcome from these killings has many people amazed at the reaction of relatives of these martyrs.

For example, the mother of Kyrillos, one of the 21 Coptic Christians killed by ISIS, said in a recent interview that “she forgives the Muslim murderers of her son — since he is now ‘with his Lord’ — and prays that they see the light and turn from evil” (http://www.raymondibrahim.com/from-the-arab-world/coptic-christian-mother-forgives-prays-for-isis-slaughterers-of-son/ )

In another related incident, during the telecast of a program on Sat7Arabic Television, the brother of one of the 21 people called in and openly declared forgiveness to ISIS. Please watch this below:

I am also reminded of Gladys Staines, an Australian missionary who worked in Orissa, India. Her husband Graham Staines and two teenage sons were burnt alive as they slept in their vehicle in 1999. Even though one of the main culprits of the crime was caught and brought to justice, Gladys Staines chose to forgive him in her personal capacity.

Forgiving someone who offends is not an easy and normal thing to do. I know this by personal experience. So, the most baffling question is: How is it even possible for someone to forgive evil, unrepentant murderers? If you watch the above video closely, you will find that time and again the brother and the mother referred above stressed that it was possible only because of their and the martyrs’ Christian faith. And believe me, this is the most crucial aspect of forgiveness. It is possible to forgive murderers and perpetrators of evil only because of Jesus Christ and the gospel He preached. This Lenten season, which reminds us the suffering and death of Christ, let us recall that the gospel just does not present a theory of forgiveness as a lofty ideal or a moral virtue; rather, Jesus Christ exemplified it in his own life and death by forgiving those who crucified him. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34). That is why Jesus could teach his disciples with authority and categorically asked his followers to forgive others:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6: 14-15).

During these days of confession, repentance, and prayers; are you reminded of the offenses committed against you? Do you recall the grudges you hold against someone in your immediate family or in the community of believers? May be the Lord is asking you today to forgive them before you go ahead further in the holy season of Lent. Will you obey the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Let me leave you with a few quotes for us to ponder today:

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” – Mark Twain

“Forgiveness is the final form of love.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes

“Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.” – Hannah More

Lenten Devotions 2015: The church is in need of repentance.

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“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

In the last post, we learned the significance of repentance during Lent. Today, we would like to focus on the urgency of repentance for the church. The church as a whole today is in need of a season of repentance. The church is in need of prayer and penitence from its lethargy, lukewarmness, worldliness, and from shying away from the truth in order to be politically correct. Most importantly, the church is in need of repentance for abandoning its primary and essential calling of being a missionary church in the world. If the church fails in this respect, it ceases to be a church. The church may be inclusive in its approach and involved in a variety of activities and programs for the sake of the world. However, these do not make the church what it is as per its calling and essential nature.

The New Testament is very clear on the purpose of the church. The only ground of church’s existence, the only purpose for which its Lord, Jesus Christ, established it, is for the church to go, preach the gospel, and to make disciples of all nations. One of the gospels put it this way,

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 20: 18-20).

It is as simple as that and the church is guilty of making it complex to understand and complicated to follow. This season should be taken as a divine providence by the Lord for the church to pause its programs and look within to introspect its own calling. Only if the church is true to its calling and essential character of being missional, can this world be evangelized and God’s kingdom be established on earth as it is in heaven. It is for no reason that the seers of old longed for and prophesied about the kingdom of God. For example, Prophet Habakkuk wrote,

“Has not the Lord Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2: 13-14)

Or, as Prophet Isaiah said,

“They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 9)

Isaiah further prophesied,

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40: 5)

Since God is going to fill the earth that He created with His knowledge, shouldn’t the church be the first one to pause and ponder what this knowledge is and for what purpose? Is your church doing it? How are you helping your church fulfill its mission of being salt and light in the world and bringing God’s kingdom on earth?

Lenten Devotions 2015: Repentance during Lent

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In many church traditions, the Lenten season does not find an appropriate place. The argument is often that all days are equal and one can fast and pray every day of the year. Yes, it is true that daily sins call for daily repentance. It is also true that all days are the same and fasting/praying during Lent does not have any special merit. However, our experience convinces us of another truth no less certain that often the worries of this world take over our frail bodies and resolve and make us all enervated and negligent to the spiritual concerns. If this neglect is not dissipated and dispersed by frequent admonition, it would be sealed up within our souls, resulting in impenitence. If we leave the choice to our sinful nature to choose a convenient time to turn us from unrighteousness to repentance and holiness, that convenient time would actually never come. Thus, the lofty words of advice of keeping everyday holy alike turns out in reality to be keeping no day holy at all.

Therefore, if the Church provides us with a season of drawing closer to God through kneeling in prayer with fasting, we ought to make use of this opportunity. The cares as well as the fascinations of the world around are such that they will certainly choke the little seeds of the gospel in us. So, let us admit that our souls have become sluggish, careless, and indifferent to godliness. Let us admit that we are in need of reanimating our piety, increasing our spiritual fervor, and taking them to a higher level in the service of God as well as fellow human beings. If we confess, there is hope for us. If we repent, there is grace in abundance for us. The problem is not that we make mistakes and are prone to sinning; rather, the problem is not admitting that we are on the wrong path as Dieter F. Uchtdorf once said: “The heavens will not be filled with those who never made mistakes but with those who recognized that they were off course and who corrected their ways to get back in the light of gospel truth.” Let me therefore urge you to make use of the Lenten season to repent as I close with this meaningful quote:

“The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance, reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification center, where flawed people place their faith in Christ, gather to know and love him better, and learn to love others as he designed.”

― Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change.

Lenten Devotions 2015: Persecution and Lent

The horrifying news of a terrorist organization recently beheading 21 young Coptic Egyptian Christians was heartrending. However, this is not the first time Christians have been killed for their faith. Persecution has been a part and parcel of Christian faith from its inception. The problem is not persecution, because Jesus Christ clearly stated: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16: 33). Instead, the real problem is a Christian faith without knowledge of persecution or that perceives little inconveniences as persecution. Many of us would identify ourselves as Christians without the blink of an eye. But few would take the time to pause and think what it actually means to be identified as a Christian. The season of Lent provides us with such an opportunity to hit the pause button on our busy schedules and take time to reflect on our faith.

In the first three centuries of Christian faith, when the church was persecuted daily by kings and governments, one would not venture out to declare him/herself a Christian unless it came out of deep-rooted inward conviction and unwavering commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. When it was not fashionable to call oneself a Christian, if someone dared to declare one to be a Christian he/she knew that it involved the persecution; the burning in fire, the burning as torches in the night tied to posts and pillars, the hanging on the cross, and being thrown in the boiling oil. It involved being banished from their society, thrown in prisons, left to die in dungeons, and being offered as food to hungry animals. To identify as a Christian meant to be ready to not just be ridiculed and frowned upon by people and governments; but it meant to be ready to sacrifice not only one’s property, but family, dear ones, and his/her own life for the sake of one’s faith. However, what the persecution ultimately did for the church was to purify it. The fires of suffering and martyrdom refined the church of dross and made it so strong that it not only survived but has thrived over the centuries.

Therefore, in the wake of growing worldliness and corruption in the church, let’s make use of Lent to pause and ponder on what it means to be a Christian today. What is our inner conviction? Who are we committed to and for what? Are we ready to face opposition to the practice and propagation of our faith in Christ? How will we respond if someone takes away our little conveniences such as a parking spot closer to the door or a familiar cushioned seat in the church? Will we leave a church just because we can find a better “deal” for our children at the new church down the lane? Will we stop financially supporting a church just because the pastor preached the truth instead of trying to be politically correct? Will we take the time to fast and  on these issues? Will we take time off to go back to the Scriptures because we truly believe that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man [and woman] of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17). And as we do this during Lent, let us hope and pray that God will deliver you and me from lukewarmness, loss of devotion, loss of zeal for the Lord, and prepare us to be truly Christian.

Lenten Devotions 2015: To fast or not to fast?

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For centuries, fasting has often been associated with the Lenten season in various church traditions. I am often asked if one should fast during Lent. Therefore, I wanted to briefly explore this question today.

Fasting has been part of the biblical spirituality from time immemorial. Jesus himself fasted several times and spoke about genuine spiritual fasting as opposed to fasting as a show off of one’s religiosity. Jesus had no qualms about calling out people who showed off their fasting to others as hypocrites (Matthew 6: 16-18). However, historically speaking, there is no unanimity about fasting and the number of days one should fast during Lent. There is no divine or apostolic institution of Lenten fasting. The forty days Lent fast did not appear in the Church earlier than the 7th or even 8th century which was introduced by either Gregory the Great or Gregory II in the Western Church. So, Lenten fasting is a church tradition which evolved over the centuries. Even when early Church Fathers speak of fast, they clearly refer to different ways in which fast was observed. The time or days of fasting varied from forty hours to three weeks to six weeks or even seven weeks before Easter. However, most people in different church traditions did not fast for more than thirty-six days in total.

This is not to say that fasting has no significance during Lent. Even though the scriptures do not lay any demands on us to fast during Lent and God does not credit those who fast with extra righteousness or punish those who do not, fasting has its own spiritual benefits. God does not keep a record of how many hours, days, or weeks you fast nor does fasting in itself has any merit. It is not the duration that matters but it is the motive for and manner of fasting that is significant. The purpose of fasting is not to please God or to get any extra credit in our heavenly account; rather, the purpose is to use the act of fasting for our own sake; to devote ourselves to look within, to do penitence, to kneel in prayer, to meditate on God’s word, and to draw closer to God through this exercise. Though not mandatory, fasting could help us confess our sins, to ask God’s pardon and cleansing of our soul and body to be ultimately at peace with ourselves and with God, our Creator. Fasting has nourished the saints of old and it has the potential to nourish and edify us, too, in our life marred with tight schedules and stresses of all kinds. It is a true saying that “what can be done anytime is usually done at no time”; therefore, let us take advantage of this Lenten opportunity to do a sincere inner self-examination and deep cleansing with the powerful blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us use this provision of Lenten fast to grow in God’s grace and to be clothed anew in His holiness and righteousness without which no one will see God. Amen!

Lenten Devotions 2015: What am I supposed to do during Lent?

Wherever he leads me by Greg Olsen

Wherever He leads me by Greg Olsen

The sacred season of Lent is upon us beginning with Ash Wednesday, today. One of my church members sincerely asked me yesterday: “What does the Bible require us to do during the Lent season?” He was not concerned what people do out of their tradition or what the church expects us to be doing, but specifically what do the scriptures teach and expect us to follow. He knew about the requirements in the religion of Islam during Ramadan—a thirty day period of strict fasting— and wished to know if believers in Christ, too, had such requirements. I told him there are no such biblical requirements. However, for further clarification for his sake and for many who might be reading this, I would like to briefly state how Lent came to be observed in the early church. A historical view is also needed due to such a diversity of opinions and usage of fasts and other traditions among different shades of Christians.

Lent is usually associated with fasting for forty days before Easter. That’s why one of the earliest terms used for Lent was “Quadragesima” in Greek and Latin, which referred to the length of forty days of fasting observed by Christians. The fasting season was also called “Ante-Paschal Fast” which meant the fasting observed before the paschal feast or the Jewish Feast of the Passover. Christians later termed it as a fasting time before the Easter celebration. The more popular and current term, “Lent”, is derived from the old English word for Spring season, “Lencten”, which, perhaps, has to do with the lengthening of days during the spring.   

When it comes to observation of the Lenten season through fasting, there is hardly any reference in the New Testament. However, it cannot be denied that the Bible has a long tradition of penance, fasting, and prayers and the Lord Jesus Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights during his temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-2; Luke 4: 1-2). The Lent observance, therefore, falls back on this tradition of fasting by Jesus for forty days. However, nowhere did Jesus ask his disciples to do this before Easter.

The observance of Lent in the form of fasting before Easter emerged gradually. It is first mentioned by church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian in the latter half of the second century. However, there is a controversy as to the length of the fast, as they refer to fasting for only one or two days or forty hours—the length of time Jesus spent buried in the tomb before his resurrection. Even this short fasting was observed mainly by those believers who were preparing for baptism which was often conducted on Easter. Many other believers in the church also fasted along with new believers if they could. However, it was not until after the famous Council of Nicea, which was held in 325 AD, that the length of fast was fixed at forty days. Thus, it was not until the middle of the fourth century that Lent came to be observed widely in the church. Even then, the rigorous fast was mostly observed during the week preceding Easter, often called the “Holy Week.”

The number forty in the Lenten fast shouldn’t surprise us because of the prevalence and ubiquity of not only “forty” in the Scriptures but also the fasting for forty days (see, Genesis 7: 4, 12, 17; 50: 3; Exodus 16: 35). Moses fasted twice for forty days (Exodus 34: 28; Deuteronomy 9: 9, 18). Elijah went without food for forty days fleeing Jezebel (I Kings 19: 7-8). People of Nineveh fasted for forty days to escape the wrath of God (Jonah 3: 4). And finally, as mentioned above, Jesus himself fasted for forty days.

What should believers do today, then, in the face of lack of a clear instruction in the Bible for fasting before Easter? To me, the most reasonable course of action seems to be to follow the apostolic dictum found in Romans 14: 5: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” So, whether you fast or not, whether you give up something or not for Lent, the overall purpose during this Lenten season of 2015 should be to hit the pause button on our very busy life and take stock of our spiritual journey. This solemn period should be spent more in taking an inventory of our spirituality than in deciding what we should eat and what we shouldn’t eat, or what we should give up and what we shouldn’t give up. If we are still more concerned about this food and fasting; then, we are missing the point of this sacred season in our Christian life, that is, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, to follow Him, to learn from Him, and to be like Him. Let us give up glorying in our self-righteousness or in our own pious works of fasting and giving up material stuff, instead, let us take this time to clothe ourselves in the righteousness that comes through believing the Son of God who gave up his very life for us. I would like to invite you to join me on this Lenten season, as I try to blog here almost every day of the forty day period. Your feedback on these posts is appreciated. Thank you.