Serious Joy in Lenten Obedience


Thinking about Lent again makes me feel a bit fatigued, especially when I think about all the energy required to defend and promote all the disciplines of obedience that are so important during Lent. Our congregation resists all of that “spiritual protein.” How can I overcome my congregation’s resistance?


This is likely a deep, multi-layered challenge that can’t be solved in a year. But it can be addressed, quite possibly from several angles at once.

One key part of the approach is rescuing words like “command,” “obedience,” “discipline,” and “discipleship” from cultural captivity. We have been trained by our culture to see these things as dour, grim, and bleak. This even shapes how leaders speak about these terms in church.

The ministry challenge of Lent is to redefine obedience and discipline as life-giving, beautiful concepts—the kind of things we wouldn’t want to live without. They may be serious, but they are seriously good, not grim.

Happily, there are places in culture where “habit,” “repetition,” and “discipline” are seen as good words. Our culture cheers virtuous discipline in a soccer team, tennis star, stock broker, car mechanic, furniture designer, or chef. True craftspersons in any field thrive when they adopt sustainable disciplines that keep them focused and on track. True freedom arises not out of the absence of discipline, but rather when discipline becomes second nature—as any jazz musician knows. This is also true in the Christian life.

Lent is a very good time to engage in the counter-cultural resistance movement that learns to see God’s commands as being sweeter than honey, more valuable than gold.

To say this another way, consider what Dallas Willard called “the cost of undiscipleship.” To ignore discipleship is to give up on the very way of life that leads to genuine fruitfulness and flourishing. How do we frame obedience and spiritual disciplines in a constructive way?

Consider your choice of adjectives, and employ words like “life-giving,” “abundant,” and “fruitful.” Speak of “the life-giving disciplines of Lent.” Always add the adjective as a joyful act of counter-cultural resistance.

Consider how music frames references to obedience and discipline. What does Lent “sound like” to you? Does it sound like Taize’s “The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (PFAS 24)? I suspect that this song may be a bit more joyful than many would prefer for Lent. While I would ardently defend the role of lament and minor-key songs of penitence, a piece like this can help us avoid slipping into planning Lenten services that are simply grim. It is both serious and joyful.

Practice reading biblical imperatives as good news. When we read Bible texts with commands, we sometimes unwittingly take a finger-wagging tone of voice. Practice reading a sober but joyful text like 1 Thessalonians 5—where one imperative piles up after another—in a life-giving way, with a tone that is both weighty and buoyant.

Reconsider the use of Psalm 119. It is well-known as the longest psalm, but for that very reason it is under-used. But throughout the history of the church this psalm has often played a significant role. I know one community of prayer that rehearses the psalm every Sunday and Monday all year along. Others begin each day with one eight-verse section of the psalm. If you treat Psalm 119 like 22 eight-verse mini-psalms, each one a jewel, this text can come to life in splendid ways.

Meditate and invite others to mediate on Jesus’ obedience (e.g., John 5:30; 10:18; 14:31; Rom. 5:19; Heb. 5:8; Phil. 2:8). Jesus not only gave commands; he obeyed them. Both his command-giving (“Come to me and I will give you rest”) and his obedience (“to the one who sent him”) are life-giving. Learning to see obedience as a beautiful dimension of our Lord’s life can help us see obedience as a beautiful dimension of the life into which we are called.

Keep the Easter in Lent. While Lent is a time to attend to spiritual disciplines and Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem, it is not a time to forget about Easter. In fact, the whole point of it is to celebrate our union with Christ, our dying and rising with Christ. This is why every one of the six stanzas in the hymn “Throughout the Lenten Days and Nights” (LUYH 134) ends with a reference to Easter (what a gem of a text).

Recover the “charge” at the end of a worship service. What a genius move it is to end worship with both a charge and a blessing. That’s a way of saying: “the abundant life in Jesus comes because of God’s blessings, and one blessing God gives is a set of life-giving commands,” or “commands and blessings go hand in hand in the Christian life—they reinforce and strengthen each other.” Rather than thinking of a charge as yet another thing to do as worship ends, think of it as an indispensable part of the blessing. See a very practical example in Lift Up Your Hearts 937 and 938 (one flows right into the other).

Finally, it’s important to note that obedience is not the only theme important during Lent, and also that Lent is not the only season that focuses on obedience (Eastertide or Pentecost are equally good times to attend to the shape of the resurrection life). But Lent is certainly one very good time to engage in the counter-cultural resistance movement that learns to see God’s commands as being sweeter than honey, more valuable than gold.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 110 © December 2013, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.