We are entering the season of Lent. It is supposed to be a season of reflection, repentance, confession, and preparation. Some people refer to it as a spring cleaning of the soul. It is a time when many give things up or abstain from things– certain habits or routines, certain foods or activities. This can be a good practice for many reasons– it teaches us discipline and patience; it reminds us of all that Christ gave up for us; it turns our focus from common earthly things to spiritual matters; and it frees us from habits and routines that have not only pulled us away from God, but away from each other.
I grew up with very mixed, and mostly negative, feelings about Lent. Neither my family nor my church celebrated Lent. Many of my friends did, and their stories did very little to change my views. I saw the season as drudgery, self-imposed punishment, dreary and legalistic, a cheerless, fruitless, and (mostly) meatless way of counting down to Easter. No one seemed to “celebrate” it– it was more like they endured it. My views have since changed, but I don’t think they were all that uncommon, and I think I was missing something of great value, something I would like to explore.
There are three important elements of Lent that I have struggled with, and I would like to share what I’ve learned.
- There is great value in sober, somber reflection. Our world is constantly calling us to revelry, happiness, entertainment, activity, and superficial comfort. We see weakness in mourning for, and admitting to, our sins. We judge those who are serious and sober as “stodgy”, “boring”, and “prosy”. We feel awkward in stillness and silent self-examination. But the Bible paints a very different picture. And the practices of fasting, confession, and meditation, practiced across a spectrum of religions, have been shown to promote better physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as spiritual well-being.
- Because we don’t value Godly sorrow– we sometimes substitute other practices that make a mockery of what Lent should be about. I know I am not perfect, but I don’t want to feel that emptiness, that bankruptcy of spirit, that comes with honest confession and repentance. In fact, I sometimes “glamorize” what is really petty. I justify my bitterness, I excuse my selfishness, I “confide” my dislikes and judgmental thoughts about others. And I bring these sins before God, not in sorrow and humility, but in scandal, as though he will be shocked or even entertained by my wayward behavior
- Which brings me to the third thing–cheap grace. I spend a lot of time talking about Christian living– about the value of prayer, and confession being good for the soul. I talk about being forgiven, and loving God, and wanting to serve him better. But I have fallen into the very bad habit of seeing God as Ward Cleaver, or Ozzie Nelson– lovable and authoritative, but not Sovereign or supremely Holy –“There, there, child. That’s all right. You’ve confessed, and you’ve learned your lesson. We’ll just forget that ever happened.” Lent should lead us to dependence on God’s amazing grace. It is the work of Christ in us– and only that– that saves, renews, and empowers us. There is a danger in our culture that we cheapen grace by making the focus on what we know, or say about Christianity, rather than what God does through us. Cheap grace leads to cheap talk–in my daily life, and in my prayer life.
This year for Lent, I’m not going to talk about giving up fast food, or Facebook, or shopping at my favorite store. I’m not going to set a checklist or a target for random acts of kindness or giving alms. I’m not even going to set a schedule for extra prayers or a list of special prayers just for this season. There’s nothing wrong with any of those; in fact, if you’re thinking of doing any of the above (or all of the above), I encourage you to do it with all my heart. My prayer for the next forty days will be to invite God to clean out the pretense and hand-wringing, sweep away the cobwebs of analyzing and making excuses, and empty my heart of pride, self-sufficiency, and false guilt, so that he can fill it again with love for him and for others. Love that is more than cheap talk. Love that pours out life and renewal– just as Christ poured out his blood on Good Friday, poured out glory on Easter morning, and poured out power at Pentecost. Not because it was part of a 40-day program of renewal, but because it could not be contained.
But it starts with ashes and repentance.