Mortification – it even sounds scary. It’s not for nothing that an Australian Christian death metal band I liked about twenty years ago called themselves Mortification. It’s the perfect death metal name, don’t you think? And the word brings to mind such medieval practices as hair shirts and self-flagellation – unpleasant at the least.
If in addition “Septuagesima” or “Quinquagesima” rolls off your tongue . . . . Well, people will think you are really weird. Yes, us very traditional and liturgically correct types are in the pre-Lent “gesima” season and are considering what to give up for Lent. A few of us will even fast. Imagine that!
By the way, you might be overly pious if your seasons of preparation have seasons of preparation.
Where was I? Oh, yes – it is understandable that most Christians want nothing to do with mortification. Isn’t giving up chocolate for Lent hard enough anyway? But I have learned that mortification is not necessary so bad.
That not because I am any expert on the theology or practice of mortification. I am not (so be merciful to any inaccuracies). I discovered mortification by accident one Lent years ago.
I usually drank a soda with lunch. Yes, not healthy, but I was not all that concerned about it. Still, I thought it would be good to give up soda for Lent.
But then a funny thing happened. Once Easter came, I noticed I did not miss soda and did not want Coke or Dr. Pepper with lunch any more. And ever since, I have tea or lemonade with lunch and rarely soda. I had successfully practiced a small form of mortification and did not even know it.
I’ve since learned that mortification is the denial of bodily comfort or enjoyment with the aim of furthering sanctification and/or as a token of penitence. The comforts or habits denied do not necessarily have to be sinful though one aim is to become less prone to sin. Accordingly, increase in self-control may be one purpose. One could also attempt to lessen sinful or unprofitable appetites by starving them as I did my desire for soda. The practice takes to heart exhortations from scripture such as “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom 8:13)
Faithful Christians can and do differ as to what extent mortification is scriptural and what are and are not good practices of it. But, especially if you stay away from the harsher forms as I do, it is nothing to be scared of. You don’t even have to call it “mortification.” Just give up something that is not necessarily sinful for something better.
For example, in the past when I have stayed in England, I suspended my online chess play in order to make the most of my time over there. I discovered I really did not miss the online chess that much. For similar reasons, for this Lent I intend to greatly reduce my online chess, which is now always 5 minute blitz, to make better use of my time. I hope for lasting results as I now have something of an addiction to blitz chess, resulting in some deplorable time management. That is a sin, by the way. Sometimes I think my bad chess is sin also, but anyway…
Give up the unprofitable or sinful lesser for the better.
Now mortification is not a cure all. Even if we give up or reduce one sin or unprofitable habit, we can be very creative in committing others. Thinking we can somehow perfect ourselves in this life is bad theology asking for either frustration or delusion and maybe self-harm as well. I should add that if an addiction is too harmful and too hard to shake off, be humble and get help.
But don’t be scared of mortification. It can help free us from the lesser or the sinful to practice and enjoy the better. I have certainly discovered that in casting off online chess and soda a time or two.
If only mortifying my temper after a bad chess loss were so easy.