When I first started observing the Lenten fast and teaching others to do the same, I encountered anobjection. People would say, “I think it is more important to do something positive than it is to fast.” Bodily negation was eschewed in favor of doing good. This objection is a sort of half truth. It is, in fact, quitenecessary to disturb our comfortable patterns of behavior by self-denial in order to make room for positivechange. Nonetheless, it is half true. We must, indeed, aim at positive change. If we want to put to deathwrongly ordered desire by fasting and confession, we must consider what will take root in its place–lestsin confessed be replaced by more sin. For nature abhors a vacuum.
This is the essential point being made by the gospel (Luke 11:14-28). The witnesses to the exorcismfocused on the departure of the evil spirit. Jesus pointed out that the departed spirit leaves a void that maywell be filled by a greater evil–unless it is filled by good. The essential transaction of the Christian life is thatwe remove the evil by self-denial and confession and fill the resulting empty space with Christ in the formof what we call the virtues. Thus, 2 Peter exhorts us to be diligent to,
Add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-controlperseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindnesslove. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in theknowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even toblindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9 NKJ).
When we pray that the Lenten fast will be fruitful, we mean, precisely, that various virtues, Christ-likequality and “fruits of the Spirit” will be produced in us. We uproot weeds and break up the soil throughfasting in order to make room for the growth of the good plant.
Sin is a failure to love. We confess that we have failed to love so that we might learn to love more. Let’sconsider an example. This week’s epistle mentions fornication again. Our culture typically thinks of sex interms of personal pleasure. Thus, people think that to possess the virtue of chastity means to deny oneselfpleasure, with no particularly positive thing to be gained for it. But fornication is wrong because it is a failureto love. It is to use another for one’s own ends, without regard for what is good for the other. To be chasteis to love. It is to respect the image of God in another and control one’s desires so as to love and seek thegood of the other person.
Our culture tends to see the moral teachings of the Bible as rules designed to thwart human fulfillmentbecause the devil has done a good job of indoctrinating our culture. The truth is that virtue and obedienceare the pathway to a more fulfilling life. The law of God is meant to order our lives in the same way that theword of God orders the universe. Psalm 19 says,
The law of the LORD is an undefiled law, converting the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, andgiveth wisdom unto the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, and rejoice the heart; thecommandment of the LORD is pure, and giveth light unto the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, and endureth for ever; the judgments of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to bedesired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the honeycomb.Moreover, by them is thy servant taught; and in keeping of them there is great reward. (Psalm19:7-11 BCP 363).
As we cultivate virtues that lead us to habitually obey God’s law–principally, the law of love–the result isan increased sense of order, beauty and peace. Conversely, when our lives are governed by our fallennature, the result is disorder, turmoil, ugliness, sadness and hatred. Consider again this issue of sexualmorality. What if, for the last sixty years, everyone in our culture had followed God’s law calling forabstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within it? Think of the social ills, cultural chaos and personalpain that would have been eliminated simply by doing what God says to do. There would be no epidemicof fatherlessness and no “welfare state.” There would be a lot less heartache, pain and misery.
Think of your own life for a minute. Would you be better off right now if you had always obeyed God’slaw and done God’s will? Is it not true that our own current discontent results from our lack of faith, hopeand love, or our lack of self-control, patience, kindness, fortitude or some other virtue? This is why, as weconsider how to make a good confession during Lent, we must also consider what the positive change wedesire looks like. We must name our sin, but we must also name the desired virtue. We must confess andremove the evil, but we must also begin to plant and practice the good.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Sin not replaced with holiness will be replaced with another, more insidious sin.This is one reason religious people can become self-righteous. Certain obvious sins of the flesh can beremoved so that we look outwardly good. However, in their place, more serious and subtle spiritual sinscan take root, such as pride, envy, covetousness, anger.
Once we name the virtue that stands opposite of our sin, we must ask God to give it to us. We cannotbecome virtuous by our own efforts any more than we can earn forgiveness by our works. But we canpray, “Lord, increase in me the virtues of faith, hope and love” (cf. Collect for Trinity 14, BCP 209). We can ask God to give us humility, generosity, contentment, self-control and patience.” Then we can beginto practice these things. We can look for opportunities to give where we have been selfish, to be patientwhere we have been impatient, to be humble where our actions and attitudes have been infected by pride,to be self-controlled where we have allowed ourselves to be controlled by our desires.
We experience the power of prayer in the pursuit of holiness. St. John writes, “This is the confidence thatwe have toward [God] that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that hehears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15).Sometimes we do not know if what we pray for is God’s will. However, we know for sure that it is God’swill that we grow in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) and in perseverance, kindness, faithfulness,self-control and peace (Galatians 5:22). Thus, as we learn during Lent to make a good confession of sin,let us also learn to pray for the virtues that we will begin to practice instead. As Jesus said, “Ask and yeshall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).