Two days ago I posed a question to my blog readers: what do you think God wants us/you to focus on during Lent?
If we are going to get the most out of Lent and we are going to reach the destination we are aiming for (remember Lent is a journey, not a season), then what do we need to take with us along the way?
We agreed already that fasting is a key element, but there is certainly more. Much more! God is always more focused on the attitudes of the heart more than on the actions of the body. As the Scripture says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (see also Matthew 5:21-22 and 5:27-28).
So what heart attitude do we need to focus on at the start of this Lenten journey? Where should our emphasis lie?
When Jesus taught us to fast in Matthew 6, He connected it with two other spiritual practices – giving and praying. And that is the gospel reading that we in the Orthodox church read every year on the day before Lent begins – Matthew 6:1-18.
As Jesus spoke of each of these practices (giving, praying and fasting), He basically said the same thing about each one: do it in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
He said that for giving. He then said the same for prayer. But before He went on to say the same thing about fasting, He added something – something that shows us where His emphasis is at the start of our fast.
He said: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Where did that come from? What does that have to do with fasting and Lent? Isn’t Lent about making sacrifices to show God much I love Him?
Yes! Lent is all about our love for God and our willingness to sacrifice for Him. But we cannot separate our love for God from our love for fellow man. The two are eternally connected.
“If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” 1 John 4:20
Our brothers in the Eastern Orthodox church have always understood this connection between forgiveness and fasting. That’s why they call the Sunday before Lent FORGIVENESS SUNDAY. And they too read the passage from Matthew 6:1-18 and emphasize the importance of reconciliation among men as a step towards reconciliation with God.
Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from others, but should link us to them with ever-stronger bonds.” (http://lent.goarch.org/forgiveness/learn/)
Forgiveness stands at the center of Christianity. Everything we do is ultimately tied back to our desire/need for mercy from God. And that forgiveness is freely available to us from God through His Son Jesus Christ. That is what we’re journeying towards in Lent.
However, if we are moving towards that forgiveness and carrying unforgiveness with us…WATCH OUT! Better for you to stay at home than to march towards the cross on Calvary with unforgiveness in your soul. As Jesus once said in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant:
“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” Matthew 18:32-35
This is serious business people. This isn’t something to be taken lightly. There’s a lot of things in life that we can take lightly, but forgiveness of sin isn’t one of them. If we make a mistake with that one, the consequences are eternal.
So therefore, the command from our Lord at the start of Lent is clear: FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER. Jesus made it abundantly clear that your forgiveness is directly tied to your willingness to forgive one another. There’s no grudge that’s worth holding on to. No bitterness worth risking eternity for.
Why? Because the bottom line is this: you can’t ask God to forgive your sins if you aren’t willing to forgive the sins of others.
Period. End of story.
I hope you’re ready to take this seriously. Jesus certainly is.