This still leaves a question, though. Why abstain from something during Lent?? Where does that practice come from? Well, presently, there are probably a variety of reasons that people choose to cut something out of their diet or lifestyle. Many people do it as a means of helping to focus their attention on God. (i.e. "Every time I remember how much I miss hamburgers, I'll pray or read my Bible.") But traditionally, the idea of denying yourself some pleasure has to do with penance. What's penance?? I'm glad you asked! Penance is basically repentance...it's having remorse or contrition for things you've done that you may not be proud of. It's a sense of desiring forgiveness; of realizing that you've been wrong and making a concerted effort to change course. I already wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, and I suggested then that repentance is a good thing. But there are many people who take this idea of penance a little bit further, and for some it becomes a form of punishment. In other words, "I'm doing the time because I did the crime!" In some religious traditions, this idea is even a formal sacrament. You've no doubt seen confessions to a priest depicted in media...in fact, some of you are even personally familiar with the tradition. And do you remember what often happens after the confession of sins? The priest typically gives the confessor some things that they must do or recite. That's their penance! And in these traditions, it's almost like punishment...at very least, it's the thing(s) that you need to do to get back on good terms with God (and/or the church). It's like payment that's owed. And that's really too bad!
We recently studied 1 Peter 3:18 together, which says that Jesus Christ died for sins once for all! There is no further payment that needs to be made for our sins. Christ already paid for them...hallelujah!! Now, is it possible for our relationship with God to become damaged by sin in our lives? Absolutely! But repairing that relationship doesn't have anything to do with paying some form of penance. The reparation, according to 1 John 1:9, is incredibly simple: If we simply confess our sins to God, He will forgive us and purify us from all unrighteousness. No Hail Mary's. No skipping meat for 40 days. Just a confession to God that you were wrong.
I don't know if you're doing anything specific in terms of abstaining from something during Lent. Frankly, that's between you and the Lord. And if you find the practice helpful to focus your mind on Him, I am all for it! But please please PLEASE don't feel as if you need to pay some sort of penance! That payment was already made in full, "once for all".
- Pastor Paul