by Ian McFadden
I know it’s hard to imagine, but when I was growing up in England, we never celebrated Mardi Gras. Well, sort of. We never called it Mardi Gras. In England—and in much of the Anglican-influenced world for that matter, Fat Tuesday is called Shrove Tuesday or, more commonly, Pancake Day. Why? I guess ‘cause pancakes can make you fat… Actually whatever name you use for it, the Tuesday before Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday) has historically been a day of feasting and partying. With 40 days of pared back eating and living looming, most people feel like having a last hurrah. Thus beads and beer and parades. Thus also pancakes. All of which begs the question, “why give up certain things for Lent?”
Lent is the 46 days (if you count Sundays) leading up to Easter. In the past, the church around the globe has used these 40 days (not counting Sundays now—hang with me) as a mini desert experience. The people group called Israel wandered in a wilderness for 40 years prior to God fulfilling his promise to them by leading them into a Promised Land. This wilderness motif became a useful one for Israelite prophets and teachers to describe harsh circumstances—whether exile or enslavement or occupation by external regimes—which God used to draw his people back to himself before bringing them some sort of deliverance. Of course the ultimate deliverance God offered was through His Son, Jesus Messiah, who died to free us from the condemnation of our sinfulness and rose, freeing us from the lasting bonds of death. When Christians celebrate this deliverance in Easter, therefore, it is appropriate to spend a few weeks in a mini desert beforehand, drawing close to God and feeling our need for rescue.
That’s one of the biggest problems for me: feeling my need for rescue. That is, I don’t, often.
I mostly feel like I’m doing just fine. And spiritually speaking, I know I’ve got a ways to go, but all I have to do is go to my colleague’s office and I feel like things could be so much worse. (You guys know I’m kidding on that, right? Guys?…) But really, I think most of us are pretty comfortable, spiritually. We know we’re not perfect, but we rarely think our “issues” warrant our death, or the death of God’s Son. And that’s where we’re so far wrong. Even that comfort, that general lack of concern about our sinfulness is an indication of just how much we need a Savior. That’s what Lent is for—helping us to think long and hard about our sin and our need for a Savior who brings a treatment for it.
Enter the Puritans. They were particularly good at this. Sadly, they have a reputation for only being good at this. H.L. Mencken once pilloried them by describing Puritanism as, “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” And while he get’s a good score for humor, Mencken was way off in his characterization of the Puritans. In some ways they remind me of songwriters and poets. Sure they felt guilt deeply, but that was because they were careful to cultivate deep feelings. They felt joy deeply too, and love. And deep feelings of guilt flowed out of and were a complement to their deep feelings of love for Christ and joy in His perfection. I think they can be helpful in guiding us through the mini desert of Lent before the deep joy of Easter.
Perhaps the king of the Puritans, better even than my favorite Jonathan Edwards, was a man named John Owen, who was born the year Shakespeare died (1616 for all you math types). Basically he was a thinking, writing, preaching and theologizing machine whose legacy includes making the rest of us feel inadequate every time we try to have a thought. One of his enduringly popular books is called, Of the Mortification of Sin. If you’re interested in checking Owen out, this book has recently been republished under the title Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor. But since reading Owen can be like sitting down to a marathon of Twilight-esque movies with your wife, there’s a shortcut (as there should be for the former). A guy named Kris Lundgaard digested Owen for the rest of us and then regurgitated him in an easy-to-read book called, The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin. Whatever form you read him in, Owen could be a good companion for you this Lent.
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” That’s how important Owen understands this Lenten process to be. He was paraphrasing Paul, who says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Although Christ erased the condemning power of sin from those who believe in Him, its indwelling power remains in us. The Christian life consists in gradually, consistently weakening this indwelling power of sin, by submitting instead to the Spirit of God within us. It’s a life-long process of discipleship, a training time in the desert, before we’re fully delivered by resurrection with Christ in spiritual bodies. Owen is bursting with practical insights on how this works. I’m not going to summarize his whole book for you, but I will point to a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.
Owen argues that you can’t try to put your sins to death one at a time. One at a time seems reasonable to me. But that’s because we tend to view sin as an annoying do-it-yourself house renovation job with discreet problems to be tackled serially. The truth is, though, sin is a relational problem. Relationships have to be tackled universally. If a man ruins his relationship with his wife by cheating on her, gambling away their savings and doing drugs, he’s not repairing the relationship by kicking the drugs but continuing to cheat and gamble. In fact, if he shows no attempt to change those other areas as well, it looks like he’s dropping the habit for his own reasons, not at all because it was ruining his relationship with his wife. I’ve spent a lot of time leading guys’ small groups in the past where we hold each other accountable for sexual purity. But Owen would argue that even if we’re sexually pure but our devotional life stinks and we’re filled with pride and greed that we don’t really care to address, then we’re doing nothing to kill sinfulness, nothing to restore relationship with Christ and nothing to feed our sense of our need for Him. Sin is a relationship issue and needs to be handled as such. Owen’s point isn’t that we need to keep a thousand plates spinning perfectly at one time, but that we need to be grieved about and attempting to address as many areas of sin as we are aware exist in our ruptured relationship with God.
Everyone thinks of the Puritans as being particularly down-in-the-mouth and guilt-ridden. And while I’ve suggested that this is an unfair caricature, they did know how to cultivate a healthy sense of guilt. And, so there’s no mistake, there is a Godly type of sorrow that brings about repentance (2 Cor. 7:10). That’s exactly the type of “guilt” that Owen helps us to cultivate. In one particularly helpful section of his book, he talks about focusing on God’s law and how severe a breach of His law our sin is. He says not to let your mind short-circuit that process by patting yourself on the back and saying that you’re not under the law since you’re saved by grace. The law is still a good reflection of God’s standards. In Owen’s words, “don’t speak peace to yourself before God does.” But what really struck me was that after focusing on the law, Owen suggests that we should use the gospel to increase our sense of guilt. Gospel and guilt? We don’t often put the words together in a sentence. The former, after all, means “good news.” The latter, in my experience, means “bad news.” His point, though, is that we should consider our pet sins in light of what they cost Christ. We should confront our own hearts with the fact that our sins—the ones we often don’t care too much about, don’t feel that we need rescuing from, don’t hate that much—tore and bruised and killed our only Friend. Owen isn’t inventing anything new here. He’s just saying what Paul said before him: “…don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4).
And that’s what pancakes and Puritans and penitence have to do with each other. The life-giving, world-changing kindness of God in Easter should make us both leap for joy and fall to our knees in repentance. Perhaps if we start out on our knees this Lent, the leaps for joy will be a little higher too.