Last week the one-time global financier Allen Stanford was convicted of perpetrating a massive $8 billion fraud. What makes Stanford's crime galling is not just the size of his thievery, but that he used his faith to attract investors. Faith was "a part of the boardroom culture," according to a 2009 Bloomberg report, and prayer often opened meetings among colleagues. Stanford's sales agents used religion and church networks, particularly in the South, to recruit new clients.
There's nothing new or unique about abusing faith for selfish ends, though the hypocrisy of his firm heightens the offensiveness of his crime. Yet, what Stanford's company did is different only in degree from what many of us do when we clothe our motivations or our agendas in a religious disguise. Having spent the last 15 years in a faith-based organization, I'm no stranger to the temptation to act like the disciple Judas, cloaking our selfishness in religious guise.
Shortly before Jesus went to the cross, Judas complained when a woman anointed him with oil. "It should have been sold and the money given to the poor," Judas objected. John chapter 12 continues, "Not that he cared for the poor -- he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples' money, he often stole some for himself."
We are not all thieves and traitors, but to lesser degrees we all disguise some hypocrisy in false piety. This season of Lent presents a challenge in this regard, as we -- often publicly -- "give up" something in order to "take up" a deeper devotion to Christ. Lent is an opportunity to examine ourselves -- our inner motivations and desires -- and to recognize that we often hide our motivations from ourselves with seemingly religious deeds.
We can only truly transform ourselves by providing space for God to transform our hearts.
While Lent is a season of preparing our hearts, an effective way of doing so is not only by inward contemplation but also outward action. In Isaiah 58, God warns his people against religious devotion while they oppress others and neglect the needs of the poor. "On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers." God condemns their false piety. "Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?"
Fasting isn't about food, God says. "Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" True devotion is to "spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed."
In the New Testament, Jesus says something similar. It's not what you put in your mouth that makes you religiously acceptable. Instead it is what comes out of your mouth, because what comes out of your mouth shows what is in your heart. At the end of the day, Jesus and Isaiah agree: What God cares about is when our deeds align with a heart that matches God's.
So, during Lent, many Christians give up something, perhaps sweets or another small pleasure. This practice shapes our heart, helping us to rely more fully on God. But, as Isaiah 58 shows us, inward piety only brings us closer to God when it matches the outward fruit of that devotion.
What would happen if what we forego during Lent was determined by what we do? What if we doubled our tithe for six weeks? What if we spent one night a week in a homeless shelter? And then, what if we gave up whatever was necessary to make that happen? Our fasting, or any Lenten discipline, should enable us to love our neighbor, to serve others, and most importantly to care for the poor.
This Lent, instead of simply "giving up," let's start doing, and let's give up whatever it takes to better love our neighbors and be obedient to our God.