Lent & the Value of Subtraction
I’m writing this on the day before Ash Wednesday. When I was growing up, my church tradition never addressed the practice of Lent. In a movement that preaches “No creed, but Christ,” I grew up assuming that most ancient practices of the church were misguided and unnecessary.
It is possible that adding such practices can have the potential of steering us away from the substance of Jesus, but so can many things. We can just as easily be distracted by bands, stage lights and haze, moving video clips, coffee bars in the lobby, and bouncy houses in the kid’s department. I’m not opposed to any of these things, but I am fully aware how we can easily slip into the thinking that adding more to our worship will automatically make it “better.” I’m not so sure.
In fact, as I study the Scriptures, subtraction seems to be a better first step.
And whether we realize it or not, we are about to step into a season that for centuries taught the Body of Christ the value of subtraction. I’m not just talking about removing parts of the Sunday morning gathering. That’s probably for another article. I think we need to start at the personal level first.
For centuries, the Church used the season of Lent (from Ash Wednesday through Palm Sunday) as a rhythmic reminder of the value of fasting, repentance, prayer and self-denial. In preparation for celebrating the Passion Week of Jesus and ultimately His Resurrection, it is good for us to release our sins into the nail-scarred hands of our loving Savior.
As is usually the case with Jesus, His ways seem so upside down.
- Greatness is found in serving.
- Life is found in death.
- Up is down.
- Less is more.
Lent reminds us of the value of subtraction. So let’s start there.
In preparation for a new adult worship space, our Praise Team recently upgraded the in-ear monitor system. Each person in the band has a piece of gear that helps them hear themselves and others. In showing them how to use the new stations, I reminded them of a principle that is always good when mixing sound:
Begin by considering what you could use less of before you add more of something else.
For example, if I’m playing along and I can’t quite hear myself, rather than turning up my own guitar channel, it would be wiser to consider what I could use a little less of. Our front-of-house sound techs apply the same principle. They’re always considering what needs to come out of the mix before they add what’s lacking. There’s an art and science to this. It’s not an easy job.
On a personal/spiritual level, it’s also challenging to consider what needs to be removed from my life in order to “turn up” the volume of God in my life.
That’s where Lent comes in. This annual practice helps us to say “no” to that which has been added into our lives so that we can say “yes” to God.
The truth is, we have all sinned (Romans 3:23). We have opened the gate to receive the temptations and traps of our enemy time and time again. This is why the Bible instructs us to live lives of repentance (Acts 2:38-39). Repentance is not just a one time act. Just as Lent circles back every year with incredible regularity, repentance from sins should be a regular occurrence in our lives.
God knows the value of subtraction.
That’s why He took the initiative to remove our sins from us. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” We know that, in Christ, our sins have been forgiven…they have been removed from us, subtracted from the equation of our lives.
King David, upon reflection of his heinous sin with Bathsheba, wrote Psalm 32. He identified that blessing comes when we confess and release our sins to God.
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:1-5).
As a way to experience more of God in our lives, more of His presence, more of His Resurrection power, I really think it is good for us to consider what should be removed first. For many faithful believers, the practice of self-denial has been a door toward an ongoing repentance…which opens the floodgates of God’s powerful presence. So before considering what you need to add this season, consider what you need to subtract.
Obviously, the sin in our lives must be subtracted.
We can’t do this by ourselves. We need the Holy Spirit to help us. But we also must willingly partner with Him to remove the sin in our lives. In 2 Corinthians 7:1, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Since we have these promises dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates the body and spirit perfecting holiness out of reverence for Christ” (emphasis mine). And for those who would argue that this kind of sounds like our purification is done by our efforts, I want you to hear me clearly. The grace of God is not frustrated by our efforts, but by our attempts to earn His favor. Let me repeat:
God’s grace is not against our efforts, but against our trying to earn something from Him.
We don’t subtract so we can add something on our own merit. We subtract so that space is made available for God’s presence and Spirit to enter in. And God will be faithful to do so. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” As we make space for Him, He will enter in, even in ways we couldn’t anticipate.
The grace of God is what does this good work in us. The Apostle Paul told Titus,
“For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).
Perhaps, for you this season, you need to learn the value of subtraction by saying “no” to something that isn’t necessarily sinful.
There was a time when I gave up coffee. It’s not that I was drinking too much coffee…okay, that’s not true. I came to a point when I realized that I wouldn’t and couldn’t say “no” to coffee. I began to think that if I can’t say “no” to something, then perhaps it had a hold on me. What do you need to say “no” to? That’s what Lent is for.
I want to encourage you through this season (Ash Wednesday through Palm Sunday, April 5) to consider what you could say “no” to in order to open the space for a better “yes” to God. This season of self-denial, repentance and prayer could provide a new closeness to Jesus as you’ve never experienced before.
I want to close with a prayer that has been prayed by Christians for over 200 years. This comes from The Book of Common Prayer. It was prayed on Ash Wednesday over the Believers that gathered on that day. May this be our prayer today:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen!