Giving Up / Taking Up
Calvin said, "I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam's transgression" (III.iii.9). Think for a bit about that word, regeneration. The root is related to the word generative. In hip internet startups, generativity has to do with being creative and producing new ideas. This is one of the main characteristics of God: God is creative--God creates. Internet startups create new ideas, but God creates life itself. Newness and change are signs of life; things stop changing only when they're dead. Internet startups want to be "vibrant" and "lively" places to work. All of these words and all the values they represent are related to life. The internet startups may be imitating life, but only God can create life.
The word Calvin used, though, was re-generation. This is the tip-off. Calvin is talking about coming alive again, and that implies that we have already died. We live separated from God by sin, and that is the same as death. It's tempting to think that "when we sin" we are separated from God, but that's not exactly it. We always live with the results of Adam's transgression--we always live in the shadow of death. The consequence is that we are no longer like God--the image of God in us has been "disfigured and all but obliterated."
Still, the death we're talking about is more about a state of being than an accomplished event. The idea isn't that we've already died. Calvin saw it more as a process, the process of dying. Calvin's word for this is mortification, becoming more dead. As of Adam's transgression, we were no longer able to be like God, to have God's image. As long as we stay in sin, we continue to die.
In many places in the bible, there are images of a plant having parts of it cut off. When the nation went wrong, God cut down the tree (but a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse). When you cut part of a plant, the cut part stays alive for a while. A flower can stay beautiful longer if you put it in a vase, but it eventually dies. The difference between us and the image of the stump is that we, living with sin, cut ourselves off. When we do that, we follow the way of death, we encourage the process of mortification. As long as we stay cut-off from God, we will continue to die.
In Lent, some people like to "give something up." This is not a bad thing. If part of your life leads to death, give it up. There are some obvious candidates: smoking, eating junk food. I'm not an MD, so if you want more ideas like these, see your doctor. There are also some more subtle things that lead to death, patterns of thought or emotion that prevent you from living life to the fullest, that prevent you from thriving: excessive criticism or negativity, feelings of unworthiness, distrust of others. We should give these up, too. Again, I'm not a licensed counselor or psychologist. Get real help from qualified professionals if you need it.
There are a few more things about "giving something up for Lent" that we should be careful to say. First, Jesus cautions about doing inner, spiritual things for show. When you fast, do not show others that you are fasting. Do spiritual disciplines for yourself; don't try to get points for it and don't try to inflict your game on others. Your Father who sees in secret will give you all the points you need. Second, when you "give something up for Lent," it's not about the giving up. Don't practice self-discipline and restraint for its own sake. It may be that there is genuinely something in your life you need to give up, but don't work too hard to find something. Don't give up chocolate for Lent, just so that you can be giving something up. God wants us to have good things and to experience the joys of life. Lent is about self reflection and turning to God so that we can enjoy the good life God wants us to enjoy. God takes no pleasure in suffering and God certainly takes no pleasure in suffering for suffering's sake.
I want to put forward a different approach. Rather than "giving up" something, set your mind and spiritual discipline on "taking up" something. If at first you can't think of anything to take up, try pairing the things you might give up with their opposites. Instead of giving up junk food, think about what healthy food habits you're going to take up. Instead of concentrating on the negative of stopping smoking, think of a positive to replace it--maybe getting fresh air. Remember I'm no MD, and stopping smoking is hard, so you should probably get professional help. My point is that to stop a bad thing, we should replace it with a good thing.
I would challenge you, though, to think of things to take up that are motivated by their own good, and not in reaction to something bad. As a simple example, you could take up reading the Bible every day. At four chapters a day, you could finish the Bible in a year. You don't need a reading plan, just start. There's no bad habit to give up, just this good habit to take up. If you make this a priority, other things with less priority will naturally fall away without having to work hard at giving them up. Instead of giving up complaining, and replacing it with compliments, just take up the habit of giving people compliments and the complaining will fall away.
Calvin also talked about "vivification," the opposite of mortification. This is the process of coming alive. What other practices can you take up that help you thrive? Be intentional about friendships. Work at reconciliation. Find ways to volunteer so that there is more justice in the world. All of these lead to not just life and living-as-in-breathing, but they lead to living-as-in-thriving, living in the ways that God intended so that we can experience joy, so that all of God's people can experience joy.
The idea of repentance has to do with turning. Turn your back on things that cause death. Turn toward things that cause life and thriving. Turning captures all the above. Turning away from bad things is good. Turning toward a good thing so that you turn away from a bad thing is doubly good. Turning toward a good thing for the sake of that good thing is what I'm really advocating. You'll naturally turn away from other things, turn away from bad things and turn away from things that are neither good nor bad. Either way, you'll be turning toward the thriving life that God wants for you.
There's one last point from Calvin. Calvin says "both repentance and forgiveness of sins— that is, newness of life and free reconciliation— are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith" (III.iii.1). This is that extreme characteristic of the Reformed tradition: we can't do it ourselves. Repentance, that turning we were just talking about, is "conferred on us by Christ." It is Christ's grace that allows us to turn toward God. Faith is where our modern individualism leads us astray from our Reformed roots. We think of faith as something we choose--a voluntary assent of our mind, but for Calvin, even assent is beyond our ability to do on our own. For Calvin, faith is "the principal work of the Holy Spirit" (III.i.4).
This Lent, giving up bad things is a good thing. Taking up good things to replace bad things is a better thing. Taking up good things for their own goodness is better still. The best thing, though, is to take up being open to the teachings of God by the Holy Spirit. Only by letting the Holy Spirit teach us, only by receiving the grace of Jesus Christ, only by letting God create life in us, will we be able to turn toward God and enjoy the thriving, abundant life that God wants for us.