From February 2008 (with some updating):Today is Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday. I remember going to Mardi Gras back in 1985 when I was in the Navy, stationed at Meridian, Mississippi. These were crazy times. As a 19- year-old gal, I could legally drink some things in some states and not at all in others. I can remember the thrill my Navy buddy and I had of going to New Orleans for the weekend on "liberty" with our Marine friends. Total freedom after complete restriction. We had just finished boot camp in Orlando and the first eight weeks of our training at our "A" school at NAS Meridian. After not being able to wear civilian clothes, go off post or do anything without being within earshot and full view of some petty officer, having a full four days of liberty... in New Orleans... during Mardi Gras was just too much for a bunch of young chicks like us to handle. We didn't get in any real trouble per se, but my friend and I were ill-equipped to handle the decisions and experiences we were about to encounter. Neither one of us had ever been away from home on our own before boot camp, and now here we were with some older 21-year-old dudes who were more than willing to introduce us to the wild world of Mardi Gras. Within a few days after all the frivolity, we knew we would be back in our highly structured and restricted environment again where every word and deed would not go unseen. Needless to say we took every advantage of our temporary freedom possible.
In a lot of ways this story reminds me a great deal of how Christians often treat freedom and legality, especially at this time of year, when many prepare to observe Lent and some even practice the revelry of Mardi Gras.
In terms of Christian liberty, we know that Paul writes (1 Cor. 6:12a)"everything is permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial" and again "to the pure, all things are pure"(Titus 1:15). Some of us would take this freedom to the absolute extreme on the occasion of Mardi Gras, so that the following day we may begin a fast of some sort leading up to Easter when we will observe and celebrate Christ's resurrection. So, Fat Tuesday is sort of a reward in advance for the coming harshness we expect to endure by giving up things that our hearts really long for secretly -- things that we are willing to white-knuckle it for a while, as we await the day when we can again pursue our various and sundry idols without the heavy guilt inflicted by our consciences. As if God closes His eyes for the day just so we can "Get it all out of our system." Then the following day, we get back on the treadmill of performance, doing all the respectable things that we think will earn God's approval and make us acceptable to be in His presence. Of course this kind of legalism is wrong, and it doesn't only happen at Mardi Gras and Lent, but in fact the cycle often continues well after the Easter holy day has ended.
Moreover, the licentiousness of Mardi Gras is also not Biblical. In 1 Cor. 6:12b, Paul continues, "'Everything is permissible for me'—but I will not be mastered by anything." If we create days or situations for ourselves whereby we indulge our flesh as a reward for legalistic performance or as an outlet for dealing with emotional stress, it is still a just as much a form of idolatry. The behavior, thought, thing, food, drink, whatever, that we long to indulge has mastered us from the inside, even if we only secretly practice it once in a while. The Bible says all of our hearts are idolatrous this way, looking to dethrone our Creator, replacing Him with the things He has created to glorify Him. John Calvin said that our hearts are essentially idol factories that are always capable of manufacturing things to put in God's place.
To use a more modern illustration of how we think of the cycle of idolatry, I submit to you: "Whack a Mole"
When we battle sin in the flesh, it seems like just as soon as we stop one idol, a new one pops up in its place. The more idols we whack or beat down, the better we feel about ourselves on the outside. In fact, if we live this way for a while we can often convince ourselves that we're doing quite well. Meanwhile, on the inside, Christians can't help but sense the compiling of sin and idolatry that is going on. Just like Paul in Romans 7, we eventually either come to the end of ourselves and are exhausted, or we delude ourselves thinking, "Game Over", I won on my own! This is a snapshot of the nature of our depravity since the fall.
But recognizing our idolatry and nature of our sinful flesh does not have to result in condemnation. It is moment to fall at the foot of the cross and look on Jesus Christ, who is sufficient to forgive us. To surrender all our wiles and whims and games to Him. To find our complete rest and trust in Him. To have our hearts abide in His work on the cross and His unending love for us as children of the most High God. When we find our rest in Him, we also find that His Holy Spirit can keep us off the Mardi Gras/Lent treadmill. If we keep in step with the Spirit, we will neither feel the bondage of sinful slavery that used to rule our lives and beckon us to forsake the Lord, nor will we find God's Law a brutal and unending task master/drill sergeant/whack a mole machine that condemns us continually. Rather we will have peace with God through Christ, having been reconciled by His blood, and being given the ministry of the Holy Spirit who will renew us and remake us into His image bearers as we bask in His Word.