God has given us all good things to enjoy and they are designed to be incentives to turn gratefully and trustingly to him: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance”(Romans 2:4). Our spiritual foe knows that if folk are convinced that God is parsimonious and miserly they are unlikely to move towards him. There is a liberality in God that is intended to draw us to him. The sun and the rain and the fruits of sunshine and showers are lavished upon all for sustenance and enjoyment.
Why is the world so dazzlingly beautiful and colourful but to delight the eye? Why do foods thrill us with so many flavours, and sounds bring joy to the ear and heart? Why do we possess an aesthetic eye for loveliness, proportion, and design? It is all to enrich our comprehension of the beauty and generosity of God. If we had an eye to him and not just his creation we would be captivated by his attractiveness. Taste, colour, an appreciation of form, are the means God has given us to explore the dimensions and diversity of his handiwork. This awareness and appreciation enables us to live to the glory of God because we experience it in all things. We rejoice in every discovery of his ingenuity displayed before us in innumerable ways. Blessings here are a foretaste of the bounty we shall enjoy through redemption on a higher plane – the complete satisfaction of the soul.
Prohibition of that which God grants and calls clean is an evil that manufactures evil. Rigid rule-making enforces obligations that cancel options that God has given us to consider. A priesthood (false term for ministry) that is forbidden marriage resorts to sexual misbehaviour avoiding the very institution that God ordained for the prevention of illicit and improper indulgence and action. Religious authorities collective or individual that dictate certain customs or values not warranted by Scripture as essential and not personally chosen are restricting the liberty of the people of God. Disciplines that are preferred by some, and maybe at divine behest, are not to be enforced on others. God knows our risky proclivities and can inform each conscience accordingly. It is sin that is to be avoided and the self that is not to be served. It is our Lord who is to be heeded, obeyed, pleased, and placed first. That is the essence of self-denial : to be available to the needs of our neighbour and not to give offence to our fellow members of the family of God, and to maintain personal holiness in our relationship with God. As Scripture advises it is hearts and not garments that are to be regulated by the will of God.
How folk practice their submission to God and signify their denial of self is a matter of Scripture and conscience, and not anything to be advertised. We all present the Lord with our special tokens of esteem and love, large and small. What it is that is to be utterly and ultimately repudiated and given up at Lent and always thereafter is sin. Lent is trivialized if it is merely a matter of petty external observances and no alteration of the direction and desires of the heart. It is the seasonal reminder of conversion and perpetual re-conversion.
Legalism is loveless religion preoccupied with outward forms and correctness. It neither knows nor exercises grace. It makes a god of human obedience and is not justified by the obedience of Christ. Because it feels competent in law-keeping it is overly judgmental of others and soft on the sins of the spirit which it keeps concealed. It can detect every irregularity except its own hypocrisy. It is highly prescriptive as to the behaviour of others. It fails to mark the truth of Paul’s statement, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2: 1). Often the one who criticizes the moral speck in another has a plank, the same sin in greater proportion, within themselves. We are passing the buck and salving our own consciences. And again, what may be right and beneficial for ourselves because of our own propensities may not be necessary for another. God knows our possible indulgences and gives us warning. Others may come to no harm with wealth, power, and position. For some of us these things would prove disastrous. We are required not offend a brother or sister with our liberty but we are not required inwardly to yield to a weaker brother’s sensibilities. Holiness and denial refer to sin, to the abuse of, but not the use of, God’s good gifts which are granted for legitimate pleasure and generous caring for others. Legalism invents extras that are essential for its conception of salvation. We may choose certain disciplines that are right for us but not mandatory for others. Certain requirements in Scripture are specific to those who are called to comply with them and know it. They are not of general application or the world would not continue to function. Excess in our pleasurable pursuits and neglect of others and necessary duties are that which holiness forbids.
John Donne* rescues us from the prohibitionism of certain schools of religious thought. He reminds us that Christ came feasting, participating in festivities, and cheerful conversation. “Civil recreations, offices of society and mutual entertainment, and cheerful conversation; and such a use of God’s creatures as may testify him to be a God not of the valleys only but of the mountains too, not a God of necessity only but of plenty too, Christ justified by his personal presence at a feast in an Apostle’s house.” Donne continues in the approbation of personal ownership: “The Apostle then had a house, and means to keep a house, though he had bound himself to serve Christ in so near a place as an Apostle. The profession of Christ’s service in the ministry does not take from any man the use of God’s creatures, nor cheerfulness of conversation.” When something is to be forsaken for the Christian life God impresses us with the conviction that this is the case: “When God sees it necessary or behooveful for a man to leave all his worldly state that he may follow him, God tells him so”. As to the rich young man in the gospel, “this was a commandment to that man, though it be not a general commandment to all”. St. Ambrose opined, “Privileges are lost by abusing, but so they are by not using, too”. We are to beware of the over-scrupulous and ungodly rule-makers: “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:3).
*The Showing Forth of Christ: Sermons of John Donne edited by Edmund Fuller, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1964.