In Dostoyevsky's "Brother's Karamazov," the protagonist, Fyodor, is angry at the hypocrisy he perceives in religious people. So he confronts a pious old monk and shouts at him, "You cannot bribe God with a fish."
There is a hidden wisdom in his angry words. A monk's austere diet is not sufficient to assure him of God's grace. Self-denial is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
The traditional Lenten practices, proposed by the Lord himself in the Gospel we read on Ash Wednesday, are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Each one is necessary; no one is sufficient.
In this Lenten season, many sincere Christians ask themselves, "What is something good for me to do during Lent?" That can be a deceptive question. We can adopt a simplistic view of this penitential season where we look for a quick fix. A single devout Lenten practice can be imagined to suffice for all of Lent. We might be tempted to bribe God with a fish, or a $5 donation, or a fervent prayer.
"Giving up something for Lent" can sound so negative. Denial does not appeal to the modern mentality. Many prefer to do something positive. Acts of charity and kindness to others are certainly part of the Lenten regimen. But they are not all of it.
As the philosopher Nietzsche famously observed, Christian charity can be a self-serving delusion of personal goodness. A Lent of only good works can be a season of simply feeling good about our virtues.
Practical Americans want to do something useful. Better, they say, to use the season of Lent to develop my mind by reading good books rather than lazing before the television; or improve my health by getting exercise and losing weight; or control my addictions by limiting my use of tobacco or alcohol or chocolate. All noble ideals. But then one wonders whether we are observing Lent or using Lent. Grace builds on nature, when nature is disposed to grace. Lent calls Christians to a change of heart. Since the human heart is so complex, the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are comprehensive and mutually enriching. Self-denial should awaken me to the needs of others, hence almsgiving. Almsgiving should conquer selfishness and open me to a higher spirit, to prayer. And prayer, in turn, should foster humility and the need to improve myself, to deny myself.
In concrete terms, giving up chocolate for Lent should make me more charitable. Daily prayer should temper my pride. Giving to charity should deepen my devotion in prayer.
You cannot bribe God with a fish. But you can draw closer to God and to others by prayer, fasting and almsgiving, where prayer is fishing within my own soul, fasting is a limited diet symbolized by fish and almsgiving is casting bread on the water to feed hungry fish.
After all, Jesus of Nazareth called his disciples to be "fishers of men."
Statements of Faith is a series sharing lessons from local church leaders and members. To submit a column for publication, contact the Hays Daily News at (785) 628-1081.