My Lent Dilemma

Posted: 29th March 2011 by Caryn in Posts by Caryn

People with dirty smudges on their foreheads suddenly emerged in public on 9 March here in the US. Apparently the smudges were ash crosses, and Lent had begun.

Lent was a foreign concept to me growing up. I don’t remember mention of it at my churches in South Africa, nor would I have been able to tell you anything about Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday or how pancakes related to it all. In tradition-steeped England, I discovered that many people around me, even non church goers, actually went so far as to deny themselves something desirable – usually chocolate – over the 40 days leading up to Easter, because that’s what you do during Lent.

The concept appealed to me. Easter is the high point of the Christian calendar – a time of remembering and celebrating an earth-shattering move of God. It made me who I am today. Yet Easter in my life usually comes and goes too quickly, with far less fuss than Christmas, which is just the start of the How-Much-God-Loves-Us story. So I thought that the ‘suffering’ that arose from denying myself something for 40 days would help me to identify with the incomprehensible suffering that Jesus went through on my behalf on that doomed crucifixion day. Perhaps it would help me to be closer to Him at Easter, and so make it all the more meaningful.

So I did it. It was suitably uncomfortable. It was nice when it ended. It didn’t feel so much a spiritual experience as a discipline, but then again, following Jesus is like that at times – a daily “left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot” approach. And yes, it made Easter more meaningful when I reflected on images of my beloved tortured King on a cross and realised that the best I could ever do, the most valuable thing I could ever give would not be enough to repay this kind of Love.

But I think all of this missed a big point. The happy bit. The big bit about God birthing new life out of death. There was resurrection! Suffering was neither the purpose nor the end. Dwelling on Christ’s death alone during Lent, to use my husband’s analogy, would be like getting excited about having a ticket to a U2 concert, but then staring in awe at the ticket whilst at the concert instead of watching the band. Missing the big point.

This Lent my curiosity was piqued by a group on Facebook called ‘The Lent Experiment’ that put out the following challenge: ‘What would happen if a group of people decided to take something up this Lent instead of giving something up? What would happen if a group of people tried to be just a little bit nicer? What would happen if we all committed totally senseless acts of niceness?’

I love this approach. Previously I found that personal Lent sacrifices, rather than becoming an exercise pointing to God, became an introspective wound to nurse with the pride that I was succeeding in something ‘righteous’. It became all about Me. It’s much easier to deflect that self-focus when my heart turns towards being kind and generous to others. Spread the love and stop the wallowing. That’s what I say. I think Jesus likes the fact that I gave a chocolate to a cleaner way more than the fact that I didn’t eat chocolate. “I desire mercy not sacrifice, acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings [sacrifices]” – Hosea 6:6.

But I think there’s an even deeper level. Good deeds can still be self-focused. I feel good when I do good, so it can still be all about Me. How do I get to the point of really demonstrating my appreciation of a sacrificing and victorious Saviour? Easter is really about the Fullness of All That God Is, meeting the inadequacy of all that we can offer. The result was the threat of a divine tsunami, earthquake, nuclear power plant explosion and hurricane combined into one because of the absolute incompatibility between God and us. But then because of Jesus’ actions, God could say to us, “It’s okay, I’ve got you covered. Let’s talk. If you’ll just hop into my heaven-copter [Ha ha – that’s my word] and let me steer, I’ll get you away from this turmoil. I’ve got some great plans for you.”

How do you pay homage to that? I’m learning. I think it’s understanding that God gave us Himself. The reward of following Jesus IS Jesus Himself. The goal of seeking God is to have more of God Himself, not necessarily just what He can give us. It’s preparing our hearts to understand that all our sacrifices and good deeds are not earning us any greater value in God’s eyes, but simply paving pathways to becoming more like Him. He IS love. He IS joy. He IS peace. He IS kindness. He IS mercy. If we want more love, joy, peace, patience, generosity or forgiveness in our lives we need more of Him. He IS all that is good, and we need Him in order to become like Him. The Easter story says we can’t get that right without a personal trainer, so the price was paid, and we got free access to Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit to help us along.

Lent is half-way through today. 20 days to go. I am eager to continue with The Lent Experiment, because it’s a way I can offer the little I have, which apparently Jesus values. But even more so, I hope to prepare for Easter by filling my days with an awareness of the Presence of God around me. By repeatedly ‘gazing on His beauty’ in my thoughts and my heart so that some of His attributes may rub off on me and hopefully infuse the things I do and say. And my prayer is that this Easter I will be able to look back on this time of Lent and exuberantly celebrate with Jesus all that His sacrifice and conquering of death has enabled.