Nowadays we all love to be positive; “negative” has become a kind of bad word. After all, who wouldn’t prefer a profit to a loss, an up to a down, to go forward rather than backward, a plus to a minus! Until, that is, we go to the doctor with a suspected illness, when we’d far prefer to test negative than positive! And that, perhaps, is the better analogy when it comes to Lent and Penance.
Down through centuries of Christianity, self-denial was seen as a vital spiritual attitude. “What are you giving up for Lent”? was a familiar enquiry. Then, some decades ago, things began to change. “What are you doing for Lent”? became the new question. “Giving up” was now seen as negative and passé; “doing” was positive and worthwhile. Unfortunately, many gave up the “giving up” and replaced it with nothing. And all penance – that necessary ingredient of Christian living – got edited out of the spiritual equation.
Yes, self-denial may be negative in itself, but it can be hugely positive in its effect. To deprive ourselves of what we like is often beneficial, and even essential, to our well being; and especially so in the present-day climate of over indulgence and excess. Giving up, for instance, sweets or cigarettes, alcohol or too much food, may just as much contribute to our psycho-spiritual health as benefit our physical condition. It may help us develop much needed self-control, a quality often dismissed or scorned today.
No doubt about it, there was a time when the value of self-denial was overstressed; even to the extent that God appeared to be happy with us only when we were miserable. But the pendulum has well and truly swung. Prevalent attitudes now seem to consider any curbing of pleasure foolish, restraint a thing of the unenlightened past, and entertainment that is prurient, immature and immoral currently has the label “adult” attached. Such attitudes are inevitably exerting a destructive influence, particularly on the young. Self-denial is a simple, effective and very healthy antidote. What more suitable time to embrace it than the present season of Lent!