This week, we begin one of the oldest traditions in the 2,000-year history of the church.

From early days people have been imitating Jesus’ 40 Days in the wilderness with fasts of their own.

This can be a good way to strengthen your faith by the time Easter comes around, so I’d like to share a thought or two about the Lenten Fast.

Traditional counsel about the Lenten Fast is that you pick a favorite food, activity, or object and live without it from Ash Wednesday until Easter. The theory behind this is that by such an exercise of will power, you’ll draw closer to a perfect practice of Christianity.

Which assumes, of course, that Christianity is a scheme to be practiced perfectly in order to attain salvation.

Wrong, and wrong.

Christianity is no mere scheme of salvation. As a practice of discipline, Christianity exists to help the believer reveal Christ in the world. There is nothing in the Gospel that suggests our good works lead to the earning of credit in heaven.

Instead, they give glory to our Father in heaven. If anything, the Gospel witness is that grace is distributed freely, without regard to righteousness, and often to the “unworthy.”

Salvation is not something to be earned.

It is a gift of grace given with regard to mystery, not merit. This is where much of what we now call Christianity stumbles. Since we are unable to actually look within a person to measure their grace, we have fallen back on outward appearance.

Are they pious? Are they given to good works? Do their children behave? Do they pay their bills? If someone does these things and goes to church too, we judge them as “good Christians,” and certainly bound for glory.

Whatever happened to, “Never judge a book by its cover?”

Works-righteousness, as it’s sometimes called, is piety lived to excess. As such, they are just as likely to lead to pride as they are to pleasure in God’s eyes.

Our work is to reveal, not to excel. Lent’s goal is to draw us nearer to God, not more prideful in our self-control. The nearer we are to God, the nearer our neighbor is as well.

Another good way to keep a holy Lent is to take on some extra discipline of prayer.

It can be a way to learn something new about God, the faith, or your church. Maybe you want to pray more. So do it. Or read some Bible every day? So do that. Every action in a Godward direction will lead to blessing.

So go ahead.

Give up your chocolate, your ice cream, your luxuries. Be strong until Easter, then revel and gorge.

Show God just how tough you are.