How to Grow through Giving Up, Part 4: Self-Denial or Self-Punishment?

What brought you to the observance of Lent this year? Or maybe you’re just learning about it, and considering.

The question we all need to ask is, Why?

For some, a Lenten fast is penance. An act of penance is meant to be an outward sign of repentance through self-punishment. Unfortunately, too many consider penance atonement for a sin committed. But that’s not the way it works.


We can do nothing to erase our sin, or earn God’s forgiveness. All we can do is accept the gift of salvation purchased the only way it could be, through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

While penance seems an act of humility, it is pride. It believes it can earn God’s approval. It is an act of religion – man trying to reach God – instead of the pure beauty of Christianity – man’s acceptance of God reaching down to us.

Sometimes the pride is backwards; it hides behind a feeling of unworthiness. But none of us is worthy; no one is “good enough” to earn God’s favor. Nonetheless, He loves each of us, and Jesus Christ suffered and died for our redemption. We could never deserve to be seen as righteous, but, in Christ, God sees us as righteous. We are covered by His righteousness, not for anything we do, but because of what He did.

Acts of self-denial don’t make up for acts of selfishness. Self-punishment does not remove guilt.

Penance may ease our conscience, but it doesn’t cleanse us.

Fasting, however, can have a cleansing effect. It does not remove the stain of sin or absolve us, but it can clear distraction from God, and allow us to slough off habits at odds with our identity in Christ.

I may not have given up hot cocoa, but giving up going to my phone first thing every morning allowed me to return to seeking God first thing every morning. Do I think this makes me more worthy of His love and blessings? No. But it puts me in a place to more fully receive what is already offered, and more accurately perceive His blessings however He chooses to send them.

While I purposely gave up something for a fast focused on addition instead of subtraction, maybe you came at the sacrifice of Lent with a more traditional giving-up of a particular pleasure.

Has it brought you into closer intimacy with God? Is that your priority?

The purpose of any spiritual discipline is to deepen our understanding of and intimacy with God so we can grow in Christlikeness. He deserves our sacrifice. But it is the heart behind the sacrifice He is interested in.

Have we presented our sacrifice to Him, or just taken it from ourselves?

Although I know God is pleased by my spending more time speaking and listening, and resting in His presence, it doesn’t make Him love me more. It deepens my love for Him. I don’t gain greater status in His Kingdom, but am better-equipped to serve. If practicing spiritual disciplines make me feel smug and superior, I’m doing it wrong. But it should make more aware and accepting of my worth. I am God’s beloved, that is who I AM. I am redeemed, a slave to sin made daughter of the King. I am uniquely designed by a loving Creator with a vital purpose in the Body of Christ.

THIS is humility. Humility is accepting the Truth of who we are in Christ. Punishing myself cannot accomplish what grace can. No matter what I do, I cannot earn forgiveness or deserve relationship with God. All I can do is accept them, and live in grateful obedience to God’s Word and the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

I can’t earn, only trust.

Giving up a pleasure is a valid response to Christ’s sacrifice, as is making an intentional effort to give up a bad habit during Lent and beyond.

Denying ourselves is good, but have you asked yourself Why? this Lenten season? #Lent Click To Tweet

What is our Why?

Is giving up a demonstration of faith and an outward identification with Christ’s sacrifice in gratitude, or a backwards-pride attempt to earn grace?

God already loves you beyond your ability to comprehend. His grace is freely available to all. Accept and live in them. Don’t rely on your own efforts to be good; rely on God to grow you in holiness.

It’s not about giving up meat, or chocolate, or twenty minutes of sleep; it’s giving up everything… to gain more.

Romans 12: 1 Lent isn't about punishing ourselves, it's finding freedom in denying ourselves. Grace, not penance.


Read the rest of the How to Grow through Giving Up series HERE.

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