by Alastair Sterne
March 25, 2014
4 min read
Lent is six weeks. And it can feel like a long haul. As our frail and fickle natures sludge through the process of self-denial and repentance—the heartbeat of discipleship—we can get weary. But simultaneously, an apparently godly desire to make it arises within us. “I can make it all the way. I can do this. I’ll get to Easter having kept all my Lenten promises.” We can start to feel strong and able. So, we fuel it. We attempt to ignite it. We throw the kindling of “I need to make it. I must make it. I can make it,” with a touch of gasoline: “You need to do this. You must do this. You can do this.”
We pep talk ourselves forward, without stopping to recognize what we’re really doing. What is this? It’s a desire to be able to lay something before God and say “Look, I did it. I have it within myself. I’m worthy.” We don’t want to bumble our way through Lent depending on grace. We want to strong-arm our way towards self-congratulation.
Lent can do funny things to people. It challenges those who are prone to abandoning any sort of rules and structures who think “Ah! I don’t need any spiritual disciplines and traditions to be with God.” It especially encourages hyper-legalism among those who are prone to legalism like myself.
This year, God dropped a dilemma into my lap: our one-week vacation with Julia’s family (who we see rarely) took place on the second week of Lent. What do we do? Do we let the restrictions we have made impede and encroach upon the celebration of being with family? My initial, knee-jerk reaction was to say “Power through. Sacrifice. Don’t compromise the season.” But then I remembered how people asked Jesus this question, “Why do John’s disciples fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds beautifully, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?”
Now, I know this passage is time-bound.
How could anyone be expected to fast and create space to be with God, when God is with them in their midst? How could any pious Jews fast in hope of the Messianic kingdom, when the Messiah is standing before them? But there is an implication. There is a time for fasting and a time for celebration that is not always determined by ritual, or practice, or season, but by context.
We miss the point of Lent when we make it about what we give up. Lent is never about what we can give up. It is always about what we can gain.
When Julia and I discussed our vacation, when we talked about the joy of being with her family, we decided it would be for a time of celebration. I can’t stand it when people say “This year I’m giving up Lent for Lent,” but for a week we gave up Lent. And it was good. Very good. We spent the past week celebrating because we were in the presence of Julia’s family. Our love for them and theirs for us needed to be expressed in a variety of ways that we would have otherwise restricted for the season of Lent.
The funny thing about it is that giving up Lent for a week actually brought about the true purposes of Lent within my soul. My inner legalist had to die, which has given room for more Christlikeness to shine though me.
We miss the point of Lent when we make it about what we give up. Lent is never about what we can give up. It is always about what we can gain. It’s always about making more space for the power of the resurrection to remake and reorder our souls, so that we become people who live more like Jesus and love more like Jesus.
I had to work hard to trust, to really trust that Jesus cares more about nurturing my soul than strict obedience to a calendar that I hold dearly and think is a good thing. I had to let go of thinking that my performance, my drivenness, my ability to succeed or even a strong will would do any good for me in the kingdom of God. I had to choose to trust that Christ’s faithfulness is what matters, what justifies, what saves, what redeems and what restores. As I’ve entered back into Lent after putting it on pause, I come expectantly knowing that God is still not done with me yet. I also come with gratitude for God’s grace and his infinite do-overs.