Why Practicing Lent IS Crazy
February 22, 2012
When Ash Wednesday rolls around, some of us get a little twinge—a conviction to give something up for Lent: maybe chocolate, coffee, shopping, meat, Netflix or Facebook. Giving up any of these for 40 days might make you a better person, at least for a while—your waistline slims, you’re less jittery, you loosen the reins of what controls you, maybe you spend a little more time with your family and friends or in prayer. Ultimately you have to ask, though, why do we sacrifice? What does any of this have to do with getting ready for Easter?
A key ingredient of sacrifice is when it becomes so difficult it drives you to faith.
Living overseas for most of my married life, I often returned to the United States and heard comments like, “That must have a been a real sacrifice.” By “sacrifice,” people meant giving up some high paying career I might have had, taking my kids places without every health care procedure known to man or giving up the familiar for the unknown. All that, sure, is missing out on something, but those weren’t the things I was hardwired to want anyway. The truth is, I enjoyed living overseas. My kids thrived in Africa. I never wanted a boring North American life and I loved the excitement of new places. All that to me wasn’t sacrifice.
The roots of sacrifice
The idea of sacrifice comes from an Old Testament idea of taking something perfectly good and destroying it before God. It sounds absolutely wasteful and stupid, really. People would bring their first crops, the grain they grew when they had waited all the long months since their last harvest, when their bellies might have been bloated with hunger and they were absolutely drooling over the taste of fresh grain. And instead of eating it all up, they would do one of two things: they would either burn it up to ashes, or give it to priests, foreigners, orphans and widows. In the same way they would take the first calf born of a cow, after they’d raised that cow and fed it and cared for it, and they would take the nice fat calf and slit its throat and watch it bleed out its life blood. That, my friends, makes no sense at all.
It makes no sense, that is, unless there is something else going on. Unless there is, after all, a God who somehow makes something out of this sacrifice.
The Israelites who ruined their grain, cows, doves and sheep in sacrifice did so because they believed in the craziest of all hopes—that this destruction of what is good would ultimately bring about something even better. When they sacrificed their animals and foods, it was a way of saying out loud and from the core of their being that they trusted in God, that they themselves were not capable of providing what they needed or what the world needed, but God was. They believed in a God who was so very much in charge of the universe that He would make the world a better place in spite of their loss. Sacrifice was about giving honor, about giving to something bigger than yourself in the trust that blessings come when you don’t put “me” first all the time.
The moment that nailed this whole picture of sacrifice firmly into place was the sacrifice of Jesus, the story we tell at the end of Lent. About 2,000 years ago, along comes this man who can heal people, who says the most wonderful things and draws crowds in the thousands—who turns out to be, miracle of miracles, God Himself in human form. So you would think somebody that special should be treasured, cherished, kept, used, made the most of and honored with a long, long life. He should have been made king, or at the very least grown old to become the wise, old, bearded rabbi in the center of the village with His disciples at His feet.
Instead, He became a sacrifice. Just like that grain getting burned up to powdered ashes and the cows and lambs and doves being slaughtered with all their blood draining out, He died. His life was wasted—and why? Because God is in the business of making good way better. The very best things come out of sacrifice. That’s how God works.
How sacrifice fits into real life
First of all, let’s mention what sacrifice is not: It isn’t about going on a mission trip because all your friends are going, and you know full well you’ll learn a lot and feel good about yourself and add it to your resume. That’s not sacrifice, that’s calculating. That’s following plain old laws of physics and nature, and keeping your own self interest tucked neatly in mind. Not that you shouldn’t go on mission trips, or that you shouldn’t do some calculating as you make choices. These can be excellent, God-pleasing choices—but it’s not the same as sacrifice.
Sacrifice is hitting a point where you see your own limits, and give beyond that. It’s saying to God, “Fine, let my life make no sense at all, let it be a failure, let it be wasted, but above all, let it be yours.” It’s throwing yourself out across a canyon you could never leap across, trusting somehow there will be a parachute, or a net, or a bridge, or somehow it will be OK—even somehow better—because of your leap. It’s knowing this: God is in charge. Period.
Sacrifice can be as simple as saying: “It makes all the sense in the world to go replace my ratty old couch with a new one—I have the money and the couch is even on sale. But instead I’m going to spend that money for a family I never met half-way around the globe, and I’m going to trust that somehow God will make something good out of that because my needs are not the measure of what’s best.”
A few years ago when we lived in South Africa, I walked up to a school near my home and saw that it was falling apart. It was the most broken-down school I had seen in my life, and I had seen some pretty crummy schools. I wasn’t there in South Africa to help rebuild schools. My kids didn’t have to go to that school; there was a perfectly fine school 15 minutes away from us. And people kept telling me: “That school is so rundown, why bother? Spend your money and time and energy elsewhere. Be efficient.”
There’s a time to be efficient—really, we don’t need to go around doing dumb things just to prove we can be wasteful. But there’s also a time to be crazy wasteful. I looked at that school and couldn’t leave it alone—these kids in the school were kids, real live kids.
Helping rebuild that school took me to the point of sacrifice. I had to walk up and feel awkward when I introduced myself to the principal and asked if there was any way to help. I had to make dozens of phone calls to the department of education. I had to press on even when possible partners dropped out of the project. The school sat unimproved for two whole years of trying, waiting and wasting my time. A friend during this time gave me a keychain engraved with the words, “Expect miracles.” I kept looking at those words, reminding myself this had long since passed the point of expecting my work to accomplish anything. This had become expecting miracles. It had become burning up and bleeding out resources; a sacrifice.
And God came through. The principal called me up one morning and told me the government had finally agreed to rebuild the school. And we wept.
Lent is a sacrifice training ground. It’s a time to exercise your faith muscle, to focus your eyes on Jesus, the sacrifice that all the rest hinge on. Lent is good, but I also want to live the rest of life punctuated by sacrifice. I want to live in a way that my life doesn’t make any sense except for a crazy hope. I want to expect miracles from a God who takes my little sacrifices and turns them into a door for the supernatural to burst into our world.
For ways to put sacrifice into action now, check out Relentless Acts of Sacrifice with World Vision ACT:S.
Christine Jeske has tried to serve God in South Africa, Nicaragua,China and now plain old North America. She’s the author of Into theMud, and a forthcoming book with her husband, Adam, This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling.
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