When I was younger, my little brother and I would make Lenten resolutions to refrain from all candy and dessert. Inevitably, this was quite difficult, especially considering the family birthdays and celebrations that occurred between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. At such major celebrations, we would often allow ourselves to “take a day off” from our fast with the promise of extending our season of discipline beyond Easter Sunday. For every day that we ate desert, we tacked on another day of fasting after Easter. Yet after celebrating Easter and then returning to our fast, we would inevitably lose count of the days we had to make up and our resolve would fritter away.
While our intentions were sincere, these “re-invented” Lenten timelines revealed an all-too-simple understanding of Lent. Instead of embracing the deeper spirit of fasting and allowing its difficulty to remind us of our need for Christ, we saw it as an obligation that, when completed, would honor the Lord. Indeed, we were often so focused on the act of fasting that we failed to see its deeper significance.
I’ll venture to say that, for myself and many Christians, it’s not just Lenten fasting that can become an obligation. From prayer to musical worship to service work, almost every spiritual practice can easily become a task to complete rather than a more significant act of worship. Throughout Matthew 6, Jesus preaches on this reality, and his core message is clear: we must throw off superficial and legalistic attitudes, and instead pursue a spirit of genuine worship and eternal focus.
Jesus begins by describing three spiritual disciplines– giving, praying, and fasting– and emphasizing the need to do each with a spirit of discreteness. When giving, we shouldn’t publicize acts of goodness to be praised by others (Matthew 6:2). When praying, we ought to pray in private and with simplicity and clarity, like the Lord’s prayer in (9-13). When fasting, we must do so in secret, so as not to draw attention from others (17-18). All of these spiritual practices are vital to a healthy life of faith, but as the passage points out, they can also be the stage on which pride and legalism play their best parts. Our human natures hunger for praise and attention, and it is all too easy to manipulate the spiritual disciplines into opportunities to show off. Ultimately, such attitudes indicate that our hearts are fixed on the fleeting satisfaction of self-righteousness or praise from others rather than the sanctifying act of worshiping God because He is worthy. The pleasure of receiving praise from others is momentary, but the joy of sincere worship and its sanctifying effects last forever. It is this joy that we must pursue in worship.
This general principle- that we ought to live for what lasts- is applied more generally to physical wealth and possessions in verses 19-24. Jesus commands believers to “lay up treasures in heaven,” where time has no effect on them. For earthly treasures will waste away, but heavenly treasures, or the fruits of sanctification, will last for eternity.
Living a life focused on the eternal is not about a series of actions but about re-posturing one’s heart. As Jesus points out throughout Matthew 6, our hearts naturally desire the temporary pleasures of attention, praise, and physical wealth. All of these things are not only fleeting, but they also distract us from what truly lasts– God, His character, and His gift of salvation. When we choose to value these things above all else, we are able to worship with sincerity, completely surrendering ourselves to Him. The opinions of other people will no longer matter to us, and neither will earthly “treasures.”
It is this eternally-minded living that enables us to be free from all anxiety. If our greatest cares are centered around God and His salvation, the worries of this world will become insignificant. If our greatest desire is not attention or physical wealth but godliness, our anxieties over physical needs will shrivel up. Indeed, when Jesus preaches on anxiety at the end of Matthew 6, He declares that God knows what we need to thrive physically and is good to provide those things. All we must do is seek to live humbly and with hearts fixed on eternity. Jesus says this beautifully: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things (all your physical needs) will be added to you” (33).
Since those Lenten fasts of my childhood, the Holy Spirit has often convicted me of focusing on the fleeting rather than the eternal. Only after experiencing anxiety and realizing my limitations have I really begun to understand Christ’s call to live in pursuit of what lasts. While it can be so easy to fall into worshiping for the sake of attention or pursuing earthly wealth, Jesus commands his followers to seek first the eternal. In doing so, we will be able to worship God because He is worthy, and live in pursuit of everlasting wisdom, love, and truth. Let us take Christ’s words to heart this Lent, and fix our eyes on the lasting power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Ana Yee ’21 is a freshman in Hollis Hall.