We are well into the season of Lent. I understand that not every Christian observes the traditional season of repentance and reflection. It’s completely foreign to some traditions and many Christians are indifferent to it.
Others are fully against observing Lent, seeing it as some medieval relic of extreme asceticism— like the modern equivalent of a 14th Century monk, standing shirtless in a near-frozen stream, legs numb, whipping his own back while reciting prayers in Latin.
Because, yeah, giving up Facebook or Ranch dressing for six weeks is totally the same thing.
But since that perception is out there, I’m actually confused as to why Lent hasn’t caught on a lot more lately, given the current popularity of a certain “uber-extreme®” view of Christian living. You know, those books and preachers that say, “If you’re not living under a bridge like Shane Claiborne or regularly dodging cannibals in South America, you’re not a real Christian. Or at best, you’re just barely a Christian.”
This form of legalism has, of course, been soundly refuted (here, here, and here) and, while neither Lent nor Christianity is the equivalent of a ‘90s Mountain Dew commercial—ever-snowboarding out the back of a helicopter into an active volcano—followers of Jesus are called to an extreme form of spirituality—one so drastic the Lord and his Apostles described it in terms of both dying and putting to death (Luke 9:23, Gal 2:20; 5:24, Col 3:5).
And here’s the thing: you can do this stuff everywhere.
Living Lent Everywhere
You don’t have to go to the other side of the world to forgive someone who has gravely wronged you, to return love for hate or choose to delete that bursting record of wrongs you’ve been subconsciously keeping.
This all happens inside of us, meaning these things start small, but they have enormous effects. That’s how the Kingdom works—backwards and inside-out. The first is last, the greatest is the servant of everyone, etc.
And so, just as the world-changing power of a nuclear bomb is potentially found in a tiny atom, the world changing power of the Kingdom begins with an invisible process of change inside our own little hearts.
And that’s encouraging.
The Small Beginnings of Sin
But remember—sin starts small too.
Let me illustrate. Because I am the father of a young child, I have seen Pixar’s Inside Out about a bajillion times. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of the inner workings of a girl’s brain, which runs like a factory with a full staff and lots of moving parts. (Actually, even if you have seen it, that’s what it’s about.)
One major feature of this imaginary world is the creation, storage, handling, and eventual disposal of millions of tiny little bowling balls, stored on vast racks, many stories tall—each little ball a thought, idea, or memory.
The last time I watched it, I had an epiphany: any act of love or mercy someone might undertake for the least of these—regardless of how big the effect—starts as one of those tiny, insignificant balls, a seed of thought, desire, or impulse.
Likewise, any sin that might shipwreck my sanctification starts the same way. In the movie, all of these countless thoughts are sorted through by comedically jaded blue-collar worker slug-guys of some kind, each one handling thousands of these bowling balls (or maybe they’re more like marbles) every day.
And at any moment, any one of these things might be locked down as a long-term memory, thrown into the projector and flashed up onto the girl’s consciousness, or dropped into the “memory dump,” never to be seen again. All that potential in this little thought.
That’s something to remember, especially during Lent. Each major battle against sin starts with a thought, impulse, motivation, or desire, slipping in (often as a half-defined, vague itch) through the back doors of our minds, where it takes root.
Taking Every Thought Captive
Perhaps this is why we read in 2 Corinthians 10:5 about “tak[ing] every thought captive.” When we fail to do this, temptation can slip in through the poorly-guarded borders of our minds, undetected. And from those tiny little mustard seeds grow massive, solid trees of sin and rebellion—a perfect foothold for the Enemy.
Taking every thought captive requires vigilance. Ironically, when we let our guard down, the very opposite often happens. When we fall (or jump) into sin, it inevitably starts with one little thought, desire, or impulse—a spark, not a forest fire. A lone soldier, not an army. And we should take him captive. We should Taze him, tackle him, slap the cuffs on him, and throw him in a cell.
Or to use another biblical metaphor, we should probably just drop the sinful thought to its knees and put two in the back of its head, then and there. But instead, we let it skate by. Maybe we don’t notice it. Maybe we don’t think it’s that big a deal. Maybe, in the back of our minds, we know what’s going to happen and we sort of want it to.
And, while we easily could have confined, controlled, or killed that little thought, it seemed quite harmless—until it catches us unaware and takes us captive. What a disaster! How embarrassing! Coveting, anger, hate, lust, stealing, even murder—they all start with a little thought.
Like a tiny little sea monkey, flitting through the transom of our consciousness. We could pinch it out of existence and flick it away in an instant. But we give it a pass and the next time we see it, it’s gone from sea monkey to King of the Apes, climbing the Empire State Building of our minds and swatting down our Johnny-come-lately defenses with ease. And it could have been avoided without breaking a sweat.
This Lent, don’t lose your marbles. Take every thought captive. Be aware that, like a single cancerous cell can eventually take out the greatest of athletes, letting one seed of sin take root can derail us in our sanctification, stealing days (or even years) of communion with, growth in, and service to our God.
Trust the Holy Spirit to help you hold tight to the right thoughts (Phil 4:8) and chuck the rest into the memory dump, never to be seen again.