Devotional: Addition and Subtraction
Written by Auxiliary Captain Josh Polanco, Officer of the Brooklyn Park Salvation Army Worship and Service Center
Every year around this time I hear people asking one another, “What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s become the thing to do in preparation for Easter. Yet, the power behind the spiritual practice of Lent is not in what we give up but what we gain from the spiritual discipline of self-denial.
Now, I am not saying that giving up things like sweets, social media, video gaming or even red meat is of no great benefit, because they are, but not in the way we hope. Our insulin-resistant bodies will thank us for laying off the sugar. You might even lose a few pounds. Our in-person social interactions with others could increase as a result of unplugging from social media. By coming out of isolation and entering into community, one may experience a joy not felt in a very long time. Our young people may actually turn to the simple pleasures of reading, art, and sports instead of spending their time on their phones or playing video games.
In spiritual self-denial, subtraction without addition is just a religious activity with no real spiritual impact. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” Mark 8:34.
Denying the self is subtracting from our lives that which feeds our false personas and enlarged egos. John the Baptist said it best when referring to Jesus: “He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:30.
What John teaches us is that self-denial helps us to replace our self-serving pursuits in favor of spiritual practices that help us make room for a deeper communion with God that our soul so desperately longs for.
So, during Lent, we are encouraged to give up Netflix binges to make room for prayer, for reading God’s word, and for meditation. We put to death the spiritual equivalent of junk food: Those things we gravitate toward for quick pleasures such as substance abuse, food, shopping, pornography, power, fame, etc. As we partake in these false substitutes for God, our soul becomes enslaved. It is in the dying of the self through self-denial that we find God and set our souls free.
With the presence of God in our lives, we can rise above the pain and struggle we face in our daily lives and find the strength and courage to continue on. I dare to say that without the soul-fortifying presence of God, it is impossible to heed Jesus’ call take up our daily crosses to follow him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that self-denial means knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us.
As the church at large embarks in this sacred season of Lent, the real question to ask is not what I am going to be giving up for Lent, but what is God calling me to add to my life in order to experience true spiritual transformation.
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