As we move through Lent, it’s a sure bet you’re going to be reminded to “deny yourself.” One of my sons told me that a Facebook friend feels she’s eating too many starchy carbs, so she’s giving up French fries.
A lot of people view Lent as a kind of New Year’s resolution that’s never intended to last for more than 40 days. Give up this or that, and then go right back to the surrendered indulgence after Easter. But Lent is so much more. It is a time to reflect on the nature of our flesh and how it gets in the way of walking with God more fully.
YOU SEXY THING
What do you think of when you hear the word “flesh?” Undoubtedly, a lot of minds immediately go to salacious behavior. Indeed, Paul writes that some of the “sins of the flesh” are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery” (Galatians 5:19). But the Bible doesn’t limit flesh to improper sexual acts. It also includes such behaviors as hatred, fits of rage, envy, selfish ambition, drunkenness, stirring up division, and idolatry (valuing anything above God). Clearly, flesh is inclusive.
To put it succinctly, flesh is the unsurrendered self — the attitudes, words and deeds that have not yielded to God. Sometimes flesh can be on public display in all its inglorious splendor, but more often we hide it. Those with a conscience will battle their flesh by trying harder, managing more, enforcing their will to bring their dark side under control. In the end, they find it’s a losing war. After failing for the umpteenth time, they either trudge around with a heavy load of guilt or give up, convincing themselves they aren’t as bad as Ol’ So-and-So.
HOW TO CONQUER THE FLESH
If we are to defeat the flesh, we must first agree with God on what flesh is. Paul writes in Romans 8:6 that “the outlook of the flesh is death” (NET Bible). The word “outlook” means a mindset, a settled way of thinking. The fleshly mind is animated by the world, but dead to the things of God. To gain victory, we must do the reverse: die to the flesh so we can come alive in Christ.
I’m not talking about becoming a nun or hermit, but living in the world while not eating up everything the world, the flesh and the devil have to offer. Lent is a time of physical fasting, but it can also be a time of spiritual fasting: starving the flesh so a new person — the real you created by God — can be born. However, this process doesn’t just involve denial. That’s where many people get tripped up. They believe Christianity is a series of don’ts and they do their best to avoid them. But as we all know, flesh is weak. Jesus gives us the key to victory in John 3:6: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Feed your spirit with the Holy Spirit, and the flesh begins to starve out.
In the end, Lent is about God, not you. It’s not about denying yourself so you can wear a badge of pride, drop a few pounds or check off a spiritual discipline until next year. It’s about feasting so much on God that the flesh loses its attractiveness. Denial of something bad for you is easier when you are feeding on something infinitely better.