Each year around the middle of lent, as part of my ongoing practice, meditation and observing of the traditions I watch “Chocolat”. I watch it because it reminds me of what lent is really about. I watch it because it’s a story that both inspires and challenges. I watch it because it’s about indulgence, denial, family, love and the true cost of discipleship.
In the midst of Lent there is sometimes the danger of being dragged into the religion of it all. If we’re not careful, we can almost enjoy the fact that we have “given up” the luxuries in our life – chocolate being the delightful, luxuriant, comforting representative of all that we don’t need but want. And then there we are, righteously denying ourselves of the luxury, judiciously displaying the spiritual fruit of self-control, going to the lengths of complete fasting, denying ourselves even the essentials of life; food, sleep, sex. Because it’s what Jesus has called us to, right? To deny ourselves, to deny what we want….. isn’t it?
Jesus’ quote above is from the NIV, however if we look at the Amplified version we see what we might be missing. For it expands and unpacks what it really means to deny yourself. It is to forget yourself, to lose sight of yourself and your own interests, to refuse or disown yourself. Wow, disown yourself. Strong stuff! Maybe a look at the story of Chocolat will help us. Because here we see the contrast of religious adherence held up against true self denial. We see how concentrating on the things we like and deny to ourselves, rather than the people who we must shrink back and deny ourselves for, that is when following Jesus becomes the sham religion that allows the beating of a wife whilst frowning on simple pleasure.
In the character of the Mayor (Alfred Molina – an acting phenomenon) we’re shown what it means to hold on to the words of denial, to be determined to display to the world how Holy we are, how much we’re giving up, how much we are denying. In contrast Vianne the Choclatier who opens her chocolate shop at the very beginning of Lent is a free spirited woman who has blown into town. Her generosity and others focused attitude draws the people of the town into her sphere of influence. Without thought for return, she brings a grandmother and grandson together, gives spirit to a beaten housewife and welcomes the strangers (the river Gypsies one of whom is Roux, a kindred spirit for Vianne). And yet, when faced with the full rejection of the religious hardliners, she prepares to move on – but as her daughter points out, this is not the answer, it’s not putting others before herself, it’s not honouring the friendships she has built, it’s not taking into account what her daughter wants or needs.
So she stays, puts her own fear behind her and puts her daughters desire to stay above her own need to flee. And isn’t that what self denial is truly about. Romans 12:10 tells us “Honour one another above yourselves” or “prefer one another”. Really think about that. Prefer what someone else wants or needs over your own needs. Prefer their happiness, prefer their health, prefer their disasters.
And in our story, the desperate holding on to denial of things is just a mask to hide hurt, to hide anger, to hide prejudice. But Vianne, who focuses on people and what they need, what would be best for them – that’s the real denial of self. And she’s reminded of that by her daughter when she chooses to stay and endure, rather than protect her heart by running away.
So think when you choose holy activity over spending time with someone who needs you – has religion overtaken true discipleship? Are you protecting your own health and sanity? Are you stopping from falling apart all over the place? That’s not necessarily a wrong thing, but when you do it at the expense of someone else’s heart, someone else’s needs, when you dash anothers’ expectation – that’s not denying yourself, it’s not taking up your cross, it’s NOT following Him. I am of course speaking these words into my own life as much as anyone else. These are questions I need to ask myself daily.
Are there times you’ve prefered your own need? Not truly denied yourself? Well, me too. And actually it’s all okay. Because Jesus offers you a second chance to try again with preferring another. He gives you a third, fourth and fifth chance. Look again at our Chocolat story – because it’s also a story of fulness, a story of love, a story of Grace, where all are welcome at the table, where even those who have held on to hollow religion are given the taste of lavishness of the life Jesus wants for us all. For Jesus came to offer us all – every single one of us – life in its fulness. Life, not as we know it, but a life rooted in the kingdom culture of Heaven where the weak are made strong; where prefering others actually brings fulfillment to you; where giving glory to others and to God fills your own soul; where pain is not avoided, but used and often (though not always) overcome; where joy has nothing to do with emotion and where Peace, Goodness and Faithfulness are honoured. Where Might is not right, but the mighty fight FOR right.
Deny yourselves my friends, not by giving up chocolate or wine, but by prefering your neighbour (for definition of neighbour see my earlier 40 acts post here), by losing sight of yourself, by actually doing what Jesus did. Oh and have some chocolate my dears, you’ll seriously feel better 😀