“Giving Up Something” for Lent

Could you give up Rickrolling for Lent?

Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.

Mark Galli recently posted an article entitled Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent which is actually a fairly fascinating look into what Lenten ascetical effort looks like from within a Pietist tradition. Pietism is, in brief, the belief that the private relationship with God is paramount and that doctrine and shared tradition in community are relatively unimportant. (For more on this, see Pietism as an ecclesiological heresy by Christos Yannaras.)

That such a piece would be posted on the Christianity Today site is certainly a sign of the times. Lent itself has been religio non grata for Evangelicals’ low-church Protestantism descended from the Radical Reformation for quite a long time. I’ve been surprised in recent years to hear of Evangelicals recovering the idea of Lent, and here we have an example of someone from that tradition reflecting critically on that appropriation.

Or do we? CT is certainly an Evangelical publication, but who is Mark Galli, and why does he construct his argument in the way he does? We’ll get to that, but let’s first look at the argument itself and how I as an Orthodox Christian would evaluate it.

The narrative here has a classic rhetorical shape: Appear to be criticizing or dismissing something, then reveal how you’re not really criticizing it, but instead revealing its true message contra the popular impression of that thing. Thus, Galli seems to be dismissing Lent (“the Grinch that stole Lent”) initially, but he eventually says that its true value is something else.

How does this actually work out in the article? What he is indeed criticizing is that Lent really is about self-discipline. Self-discipline as an inherent good is part of the Pietist package, and it makes sense to approach Lent from that angle (if one approaches it at all) from within Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is so steeped in the culture of self-improvement and self-help (not to mention, self-service) that Lent actually starts looking pretty good, so long as it’s understood in this Pietist manner.

And why shouldn’t it be understood this way? Evangelicals’ main cultural contact for Lent is American Roman Catholics, whose Lenten asceticism no longer even necessarily includes actual fasting on Fridays—to say nothing of every day during the season, which is Roman Catholics’ ancient tradition, giving up even dairy, which is why there are Shrove Tuesday pancakes and (around these parts), Fastnacht Day. Rather, what they see is “giving something up for Lent.” Picking something to give up for Lent is a perfectly Pietistic thing to do. (Pietism has, alas, affected not only the churches of the Reformation.)

Because there is no doctrine of theosis (divinization/deification, the process of becoming united with God in His divine energies) in the world of Pietism—nor really in any of the Reformation churches—asceticism has nothing to do with uniting with God. For us who believe in theosis, asceticism’s very purpose is the retraining of the will, not for the sake of mere self-discipline, but rather because the will has to become receptive to divine grace in order to receive it. But that doesn’t exist outside of theosis, so fasting or giving up anything at all for Lent will not, as Galli says, actually lead to more self-discipline. That wasn’t its purpose when it was commanded by Christ, so attempting to use it for that won’t actually accomplish it. Asceticism’s purpose is the retraining of the will, not the self-improvement of the body. Fasting is not a diet to help us lose weight or to become more “responsible.” It is the ongoing struggle against the passions.

What’s also missing from Pietistic asceticism is the guidance of tradition and community. Remember that Pietism’s concern is the private relationship with God, so there is little room for the idea that one should have a father-confessor guiding one’s asceticism, who is himself guided by centuries of Church tradition and experience. It’s something you do on your own and for yourself. So why shouldn’t you just pick and choose for yourself how you’re going to do it?

Galli essentially shares some of these same criticisms that Orthodoxy has of this Pietistic approach to Lent, though certainly he doesn’t make his criticisms from within Orthodox tradition, so there is no theosis here to reveal asceticism’s traditional Christian purpose. He also does not seem to have any problem with the individualized approach to Lent, so he’s keeping at least that bit of Pietism intact. This leads us to ask just how it is he has determined what he calls “the real point of Lent”:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.

So here we have to figure out exactly from where within the Reformation Galli is making his criticisms of the Pietistic approach to Lent. To figure that out, I had to do a little digging.

Galli is of course one of the editors at CT, but some Googling reveals that he is also a member of the Church of the Resurrection in the Wheaton, Illinois, area. And to whom do they belong? That also took some digging. (What is it with churches that don’t tell you up front which denomination they’re part of?) They belong to the Anglican Mission in America, a conservative breakaway from the Episcopal Church USA (which has as a body gone quite off the deep end in recent decades). So Galli is coming from that interesting, multifarious and confusing world of Anglican traditions (note well the plural).

But he is essentially using a Lutheran argument, which is not surprising coming from a conservative Anglican. They’ve always had a certain affection for Lutheranism. Martin Luther, as you remember, identified good works as being opposed to faith—which was not St. Paul’s argument at all; Paul was instead concerned to contrast grace with the works of the Law of Moses, not with good works in general (Luther’s error was to conflate “the [Mosaic] law” with “good works”). (For more on this, see the rather bountiful references to the inherent close connection between faith and good works in the entire Epistle of James, which Luther was none too fond of.)

So the best that good works can offer—and of course asceticism was very much on Luther’s mind as a “good work,” seeing he was an Augustinian monk—is the same that the Mosaic Law can offer. It is a tutor to show you what a rotten sinner you are. That’s what Paul says about the Mosaic Law, but he doesn’t say it about asceticism. (Instead, the whole New Testament actually speaks quite highly of asceticism and its place in making the will receptive to grace. But never mind that.)

So what we really have here in Galli’s article is essentially a less Pietistic sector of the Reformation criticizing a more Pietistic one.

For Orthodox Christians, Lent and all of our ascetical effort (which includes fasting around half the days of the year, not just Lent, as well as other ascetical practices, none of which include picking something to give up) are about neither the Pietistic emphasis on self-discipline and individual piety and belief nor in the more Lutheran concern of revealing us to be sinners (thus representing the continuum between the Radical and Magisterial Reformations, respectively). There is nothing wrong with either goal, of course, but that is not the point of asceticism.

And I have to say that asceticism is rather a silly method of showing yourself to be a sinner. Wouldn’t it be easier just to take a long, hard look at yourself? And what about the Pharisees who “succeed” in their asceticism? It would seem to have the opposite effect on them. Centuries upon centuries of Christian tradition is finally about “play acting”? Yeah, that does sound pretty “miserable” and “onerous” to me, but that’s because you’re doing it wrong.

It actually doesn’t particularly matter if we succeed in “self-improvement” by means of asceticism. If we do, great, but if not, what we are actually trying to achieve is something different. It is becoming more receptive to the free gift of divine grace, so that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature, so that we can be united to God in His energies, becoming partakers of the divine nature.

It also doesn’t matter if we reveal ourselves to be sinners or not in practicing asceticism. To be honest, if you’re not aware that you’re a sinner simply by being in the presence of the beauty and glory of Orthodox Christian worship, then I’m not sure what will reveal it to you. But I suppose if you belong to a religion that does not know about that beauty, it may well take something else to reveal this to you, because you’re cut off from the true revelation of that glory.

Because he is probably far from experiencing the amazingly heartrending beauty that we Orthodox experience in Lent, I can see why someone like Galli might find Lent to be “a miserable way to live” and why he’d never want to “turn Lent into a lifestyle.” But if you’re Orthodox, Lent is very much “a lifestyle”! We’re always in the process of struggling against the passions of our will, and asceticism is our constant companion—Lent is only one season in which it is intensified. And if we do it the right way—as part of the Orthodox Christian community—it is rather far from being a miserable life. Indeed, the true ascetics always have a curiously indomitable joy.

For the Orthodox, Great Lent’s purpose is possible and revealed only within the actual community of faith, both within space (including all those currently in the Church) and time (including all those who have come before). It is not an individual achievement. It is something that is done within the Eucharistic, liturgical community, which is why Great Lent so radically transforms our daily liturgical life. It is also perhaps why so many people who may not otherwise make confession a frequent practice often find it within themselves to come to confession during the Lenten springtime (and “spring” is what Lent actually means, by the way)—they feel something awakening, and they know that the only possibility for its coming to full alertness is to reconcile and renew with the community with the guidance of their father-confessor.

What is missing both from the Pietism that Galli criticizes and the Reformation opposition between faith and works that he endorses is the doctrine of theosis, which is communion with the Holy Trinity. That communion between us men and women and the Divine Community Himself (for He is three Persons!) is what drives our asceticism and is the inner meaning of Great Lent.

For a great deal more on what asceticism actually means and how it’s everywhere in the New Testament, contra what the Reformation says about such things, I very much recommend a piece by Fr. Georges Florovsky to which I linked above, The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation. In English, at least, you can hardly do any better.


  1. It may be true that the “Evangelicals’ main cultural contact for Lent is American Roman Catholics.” However, if that is true, then that contact is probably very superficial. Maybe they have heard talk about “giving up something for Lent.” But if that’s the case they are cherry-picking from something more elaborate than merely “giving up.”

    The practicing Roman Catholic views Lent as a penitential season in which calls for conversion of heart through more intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It doesn’t mean that is the only time one prays, fasts, or does charitable works. But the extra emphasis on these practices is for the sake of purifying oneself spiritually for a deeper relationship with the Lord. The whole idea is “becoming more receptive to the free gift of divine grace, so that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature, so that we can be united to God in His energies, becoming partakers of the divine nature.”

    May your Lenten journey be fruitful.

    1. “Superficial,” indeed, and that is essentially my point in using the phrase cultural contact rather than theological engagement or the like.

      As for what American Catholics themselves experience and do for Lent, my own anecdotal experience with them has been all over the map on this, but the majority largely do not seem to fast very much, if at all. For two years, however, I did have a Roman Catholic roommate who fasted in an essentially Orthodox manner for the whole of Lent, but he (in his self-effacing way) also indicated to me that what he was doing was exceedingly rare. I have found his evaluation to hold true for most of the Roman Catholics I have known.

      And of course the actual “obligation” (to use the technical term) for fasting for Roman Catholics is only for eight days (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays in Lent) out of the forty, and it is only from meat. So one can see in that pretty stripped-down structure (as compared with the older traditions of Roman Catholicism) how the average Roman Catholic, wanting to do something that will last for the whole season, would also try to “give something up.”

      As to the section you quoted from my piece, that is not compatible with Roman Catholic theology, which does not acknowledge that God has both Essence and Energies, and certainly therefore does not admit the possibility of union with the Energies. There is only the doctrine of the Beatific Vision, which is something rather different from theosis.

      In any event, my point was not really about what Roman Catholics are doing, but rather about what Evangelicals are getting from their Roman Catholic friends.

      1. I’m no theologian, Fr. Andrew, but the whole point of Catholic spirituality is to grow in union with God, the whole God, not part of God, since God has no parts. And union is facilitated through prayer and sacraments, doing God’s will, practicing virtue none of which is possible without the grace of God. But talking theology is speculative anyway, isn’t it? It is using human words to try to understand and to explain our relationship with the holy and the ineffable. That’s how I see it.

        As for the actual obligation, you don’t have it quite right. We distinguish between fasting (one meal with two snack-like meals) and abstinence (refraining from meat) Those between the ages of 18 and 60 “officially” fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday only. I’m already beyond age 60. Everyone above age 13 abstains on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. And I agree that’s rather puny compared with the Orthodox discipline. Is it right to say one way is better than the other? I would say the Orthodox practice is more difficult. Does God look more favorably on those who do things that are more difficult or is it the love with which we do them that matters? St. Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Mother Teresa both suggested a way of spirituality that emphasized doing small things with love. And I find that very challenging.

        1. We would not say that God has “parts,” either, and that’s not what the Essence/Energies distinction (which goes back explicitly at least to St. Basil and is found in the Scripture, though in different language) is about, anyway. But from the Orthodox point of view, it is nonsense to say that one can be united with God’s essence, for “no man hath seen God at any time.” But my point here was really that your quoting from Orthodox theological language is not really appropriate for Roman Catholicism. We don’t share the same soteriology, nor even the same Triadology.

          As for the technical difference between “fasting” and “abstinence,” of course I am aware of that, but I was using fasting in the more general sense that the Orthodox (and even Evangelicals) use it, and that includes both what you would call “fasting” and “abstinence.” As to whether I’ve got it right, all I can do is look at official sources, which include what I linked to.

          As to whether Roman Catholic fasting/abstinence practices are better or worse than Orthodox ones, well, yes, I think one can say that one is better than the other, but not on the grounds of Orthodoxy vs. Roman Catholicism, but simply on the grounds of Roman Catholic fasting/abstinence tradition itself, which was solidly almost identical with Orthodoxy for nearly its whole history until recently. So if we discern what it is now in comparison with what it was not so very long ago, one would think that any serious Roman Catholic would himself find it wanting. Indeed, I know many who do and who choose to delve more deeply into their own tradition precisely for these reasons. The point is not really whether one is “better” or “more difficult,” but rather whether one is being faithful to Christian tradition. To set love in opposition to such things is also a departure from Christian tradition (and it’s a Pietist departure, at that).

          It is manifestly the case that Roman Catholics have departed even from their own tradition in this regard—and I don’t mean 1000 years ago, either, but relative recently (20th century), else there wouldn’t still be the memory of pancakes and Mardis Gras on Shrove Tuesday. After all, what’s the point of using all that stuff up on Tuesday when one is just going to have it again on Thursday?

          But I will let Roman Catholics work that out for themselves whether that is the direction they wish to continue going. After all, none of it was particularly my point. I was speaking of how Evangelicals are appropriating Lent, and, like it or not, it’s the “giving up candy for Lent” Catholic who is their first witness to such things.

      2. I still say that in many instances (but certainly not all) Catholics and Orthodox are approaching the same ultimately indescribable mystery with different terminology and misunderstandings of what the other actually confesses (and the other side is often caricatured to the detriment of both).

        From Eric Mascall’s book “Via Media”

        Palamite: “You make no distinction between the essence of God and his energy and you say that God gives himself to the creature in a finite mode. On your showing, this must mean that the divine essence is given in a finite mode, and this is plainly impossible. Either what is given is finite, in which case it cannot be God, or what is given is God, in which case it cannot be given finitely. In the former case there is no real deification of man; in the latter case man ceases to be a creature. Neither alternative is admissible, so your theory must be false.”

        Thomist: “The whole matter is, of course, a profound mystery, but you have not been fair to my thought. I did not mean that God-in-a-finite-mode was given to the creature, but that God was received by the creature in a finite mode. The finitude is in the mode of participation, not in the object participated. And here is a dilemma for you, in return for that on which you tried to impale me. You say that the creature participates in the divine energy, though not in the divine essence. Now listen. Either the energy and the essence are identical, or else in participating in the energy the creature does not really participate in God. In the former case your own theory is false, in the latter it fails to provide for a real deification of man.”

        Palamite: “No, now it is you who are being unfair to me. The energy is divine, and therefore in participating in the divine energy the creature participates in God. God is present, really present, in his energy as much as in his essence. The only difference is that the energy is communicable and the essence is not. Thus God is really communicated in his energy, though he remains incommunicable in his essence.”

        Thomist: “Really, this is intolerable. God and his essence cannot be separated. If the energy communicates God it communicates his essence. And then you need my theory to explain how the creature can participate in God without losing its creatureliness.”

        1. I think your point is correct as far as it goes, but I’m not quite sure how far it goes.

          Yes, we are talking about ineffable mysteries here. But no, I don’t buy the idea that we really just believe the same things, if only someone would come along and show how all of our respective saints and church leaders have been wrong about our differences for all these centuries.

          In any event, looking at a faith from an angle other than actual loyalty to that faith will always necessitate some level of distortion. All we can do is try to be as honest and fair as possible.

  2. This post reminded me of an acquaintance I had at Notre Dame. I didn’t know him very well and I don’t know whether he was actually Roman Catholic, but one year he talked about picking up smoking for Lent, reasoning that if people give up something they like, he might as well pick up something he doesn’t.

    1. Yes, this is also a result of a certain Western strain of theology, that asceticism is about self-punishment. (There are Orthodox who seem to think this way, too, asking, for instance, whether food that tastes good really is permissible, even if it’s technically fasting food.) There is also the other distortion, which is that it is about sacrifice.

  3. Gotta laugh at the Rickrolling thing! Ah, Lent, the sources of all sorts of jokes. I just saw an ad for a “Christian” dating service that read “Single? Give it up for Lent!” Ack. Seriously though, my thoughts re: giving up things for Lent…and I’ll warn you it may not necessarily be fully Orthodox or even politically correct. Since I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, I was well acquainted with the idea giving up material things for Lent. A popular one was candy. In 5th grade, I gave up my favorite activity, listening to the radio and it was AGONY! lol. For years, I did nothing for Lent as I stayed away from churches. Last year, I attemped the Great Fast but not with a tremendous amount of success as I had some health issues that didn’t allow for me to give up meat. This year, I’m doing better health-wise, so i think I want to try now that I’m a Chrismated Orthodox Christian of nearly a year. Mind you, I’m still trying to figure out this ‘new’ old approach to Lent with all the uber- fasting and whatnot. Maybe I’m wrong to feel this way, but truth be told I can’t stand fasting! It makes me feel cranky. Sometimes I wonder if maybe at the end of the day, if a person gives up something just to be “miserable” and complain about it, it’s really a waste of God’s time and ours. It ranks up there with being a Pharisee. Maybe it’s better to have that cheeseburger than to complain about not being able to? Maybe it’s better to “give” than “give up something” meaning step up the charity work of some sort? Of course, I know that’s not the true spirit of Lent, but Oh well. Personal feelings or not, I’m going to give the Great Fast the ole college try this year and ask the Lord to have mercy on me in the process.

    1. With all these Maybes, the best thing is… AYP! (“Ask Your Priest!”)

      (Related: SNYP = “Sorry Not Your Priest,” used by clergy online when asked for private pastoral advice by people in distant places.)

  4. Bless, father.

    This guy really needs to read Fr. Schmemann’s book Great Lent. In it, he would find that, at least in the Orthodox Church, Lent is not some somber time to be moaned and groaned over but a time of joy, though tempered, a “bright sadness” as he calls it.

    Relying on Schmemann futher, Lent is not something we should endure just “to get it over with” but should serve as the school for how we live a repentant life.

    BTW, father, could one argue that the asceticism mentioned in the Pauline corpus is “his” translation of the “repent” (metanoiete) of the Gospels?


    1. No, I don’t think so. Asceticism can assist in repentance, however. To repent is fundamentally to turn one’s will bck toward God. Asceticism does not turn the will but simply can make it strong enough to accomplish the turning. There is, after all, asceticism that does not lead to repentance.

  5. I agree with the point made in this article and the article recommended that part of following Jesus is choosing things that bring us closer to Him over and above temporal pleasures, selfish ambitions, etc. My question is this: How do we know that Lent brings us closer to Him?

    The logical arguments for it are probably that 1) the act of choosing something we perceive as being connected with Christ in preference to something temporally pleasant makes us value the Lord more and/or 2) church tradition dictates Lent, which means that Christ dictates it, and obedience to Him is one of the major ways of showing we love Him. As a Protestant, I feel little weight from arguments that are not directly from scripture. I see in the Bible that God wants us to choose Him over any other thing, but it seems like there are enough real evils to struggle against without adding more. And I don’t see a Biblical mandate for practicing Lent.

    Finally, my own experience when I have practiced Lent is that it didn’t noticeably increase my love for God. I remember feeling grumpy. Sometimes it increased my self-discipline. Sometimes it made me want to be a PIG after Lent. I don’t remember enjoying Easter any more or understanding any greater significance in the day. In fact, it turned my Easter into “I-can-eat-chocolate-YAYYY”-Day. I lost sight of my Savior in focusing on the extra rules I’d added and the ability to break them once it was over. So, I really don’t understand Lent.

    Please, if possible, answer from a Biblical, more than a logical or traditional standpoint. This will mean much more to me.

    One last comment is that I feel I don’t have a strong Biblical view concerning the practice of fasting. I have done it for self-discipline (with disastrous results, leaving me at 105 pounds, constantly exhausted, and constantly feeling guilty and confused about whether God wanted me to be doing it or not, and about times when I thought it was okay to break the fast). I don’t see the Bible explicitly defining fasting in terms of practicing self-denial, though. Paul says, on the contrary, that this kind of asceticism is of no help in killing the flesh. It seems like people usually fast in the Bible when they are praying for something, which is how I presently fast: I do it when praying for others. (Which doesn’t entirely make sense either, though we are commanded by word and example to do it; are we bribing God? focusing our attention on Him?)

    These are my reservations, frustrations, and confusions regarding Lent and fasting. I will continue, as I wait for answers, to try to follow what God wants me to do that is clear in His word, and to draw close to Him and trust in His grace through Christ’s sacrifice and victorious resurrection. (I think focusing on the last is the best thing I could do to celebrate Easter.)

    1. If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.

      But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.

      But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.

      Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.

      But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.

      In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)

      As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.

      Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.

      If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.

      1. Well said, Father Andrew.

        Though I appreciate all the comments you’ve made here, I thank you for writing these remarks, particularly. They clearly express the Orthodox viewpoint, without being uncharitable toward the Protestant commenter.

  6. Looking at Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation, priceless.

    What really leaps off the page, coming from a Southern Baptist background is, “But to misunderstand St. Paul’s critique of “works,” to think that St. Paul is speaking of the “works” commanded by our Lord rather than the Judaic understanding of the works of the “law” is a misreading of a fundamental nature.”

    Wow, my “deprogramming” continues.

  7. Father,

    I was told by a Classical Reformed Protestant that all you’ve done for Luther is shoot down a straw man. Is there something worth reading that you might recommend (to me, not to him) that dives into Reformation theology (faith vs. works) from an Orthodox perspective that might get into the meat of the issue?

    I’m curious to know how exactly he thinks you’ve pegged Luther wrong (I’ve inquired, awaiting a response) and I’d like to read something devoted to that subject in particular if such a work exists. I understand that in any post you can’t rehash three chapters from any systematic theology book on any particular issue. That would be a bit over the top.

    1. No matter what one says about Luther, one pegs him wrong. 🙂

      That said, I recommend that piece by Florovsky, who explicitly identifies the problem with the conflation of the Mosaic Law with good works. This section in particular talks about Luther in some detail.

  8. Father,

    Forgive me for joining this conversation rather late! But I was hoping you could help me see what I’m missing: you spoke of a Lent that’s about self-discipline as Pietistic, and compared it to an Orthodox Lent rooted in theosis where asceticism helps us become more receptive to God’s uncreated grace.

    What I fail to see is how the latter isn’t self-discipline/improvement at least in some sense. I’m struggling to see the community/individual distinction that you mentioned, because while I know we engage Lent together as the Church, it still seems that each of us individually has to choose to actively join that journey.

    But I am more of the opinion that I am conflating these two ideas because of something I fail to grasp. No doubt I carry a pietistic outlook in me, being a convert to the Church. I’d like to root all that out!

    Thank you…

    1. My point is not to efface entirely the notion of the individual will in undertaking the askesis of Lent, but rather to point out that the person undertakes this as part of a community—not only in the sense of being one of many who are doing it, but in the sense that he does it under the guidance of his father-confessor, according to the normative rhythms of his own parish, and all informed and shaped by the holy tradition of the Church. He is free to participate or not, but if he makes it up for himself or chooses not to participate, he cannot rightly see himself as engaging in the legitimate tradition of the Church. The Pietist decides for himself what is right, and if he belongs to a Pietist church, then that anti-communal approach, while being approved by the community, is actually a fragmentation of it. If Bob decides to fast from meat and dairy while Sally decides to fast from margaritas yet Steve decides not to fast at all, they are not on a communal journey through Lent together.

      Further, in the Orthodox tradition, even when focusing on the individual level of participation, it’s never about learning “discipline” as some sort of merely moral enterprise. Rather. it is ascetic training to bring the will to will the things of God and not one’s private desires. It’s not about becoming “better” but about deepening communion with Christ. This is why Orthodox asceticism can never be a solely individual effort, because its purpose is ecstatic, to bring one out of one’s own egotistical and idiosyncratic preferences and to meet God.

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