If you know me, you know how much I love Lent’s sibling, Advent. Advent comes as a sweet relief when winter’s chill is just beginning to settle in. The cheer of Christmas preparations brings anticipation, reflection, and joy. Lent, on the other hand, sneaks in when the dregs of winter can’t seem to let go. Of course Lent is about looking to the hope of the resurrection. But in the way we are taught to “celebrate” it, there is no merriment in its celebration; no angels singing Alleluia, no pleasant feelings of expectation like with Advent. Instead, the season of Lent is a vulnerable preparation; a time of brokenness, repentance, and sacrifice. These are not bad things. In fact they are exactly what we need if we are to live as humble servants of Christ. But sometimes the dreariness of the weather calendar and the struggles of our personal calendar mixed with the humility of the church calendar can seem like too much. This year when Lent began, I didn’t feel like I could or should give up anything. “Even if I did,” I told myself, “it would be for the wrong reasons.” At first I felt guilty. But then I read four articles that changed my mind.
I’ve been writing a lot about suffering and pain. I don’t pretend to have experienced more than anyone else. But I think I am uniquely aware of it in this long season. That’s why Tish Harrison Warren’s words in her article, Giving Up and Taking Up: What we do (and don’t do) when we keep Lent struck such a chord. She says,
“A few years ago I began Lent burnt out and harried. . . I didn’t know what to give up for Lent. I felt stretched so thin, that the thought of any more deprivation made me feel unhinged. A very wise friend and priest said to me, ‘Don’t give anything up for Lent this year. Your whole life is Lent right now.’” So instead of giving anything up. She added intentional time and space for God to speak into her life. Time of slowness and reflection in the midst of harried life. It is easy to get caught up in the pursuit of happiness, success, or resolutions without acknowledging the presence of anxiety, depression, and sin. “The Christian calendar,” she reminds us, “allows us time to admit the reality that things are not the way they are supposed to be, a reality our hearts know all too well.”
There can be no resurrection without death. In our daily lives we see it as death to sin, death to self, death to our own ways of controlling and planning that which God already holds in His hands. When we stop to reflect on our relationship to Christ’s suffering, that is when we meet the vulnerable place where He is King and we are not. It’s a painful place. But one that “speaks” louder than spiritual platitudes that so accompany Lenten abstinence.
Writer and professor Heather Walker Peterson puts it this way in her article On Not Having it all Together: Lent isn’t Advent: “This is the season to remember the now and the not yet, that the full culmination of Christ’s restoration of us is yet to come.” This is exactly in line with the theology of loneliness and suffering I have been seeking. Jesus conquered death when he rose from the tomb, but he has so much still for us to learn about living a holy life like Him. These preparations, lessons, and seasons are hardly ever comfortable, but they are good and trustworthy. Living by faith, and sharing in Christ’s suffering and humility are exercises in holiness that I too often would like to forgo, but they are reminders that nothing God moves us through is in vain.
Just like this season in my life, the characteristics of Lent seem the opposite of comfortable. Yet Desiring God writer, John Bloom argues in his article, Jesus Will Not Leave You Alone, that Jesus desires our comfort, peace and joy. “He so desires your ultimate comfort that he will make you very uncomfortable in order to give it to you. . . He wants to give you the true comfort of learning to fear only God, so he will give you the discomfort of facing your false fears. . . and He wants to give you the true comfort of resting secure in the promises of God, so he will give you the discomfort of living with apparent uncertainty.”
These are mercies. And these mercies are gifts. Jesus’ life on earth, in a human body is a gift. His sacrifice on the cross is a gift. His resurrection and redemption are gifts. We can’t muster up emotions or actions that would ever come close to matching the magnitude of this gift. But during Lent, we decide to take part in the gift. Author and blogger Addie Zierman reflects on her own anxious feelings about Lent in her article Of Lent and Emptiness, After completing a round of the Whole 30, which she argues, was not meant to be a Lenten practice, she says, “It occurred to me that maybe the practice of abstaining from things at Lent was never actually about trying join Christ in his suffering or impress him with my selfless devotion. . . Perhaps it was always just about coming back to our bodies, allowing ourselves to feel the emptiness that is always there, underneath all the things we use to dull it. Maybe this giving up of something was always meant to be not a sacrifice but a gift. A way to feel the truth of our need without having to muster it up ourselves.”
I cannot muster up the truth of my need. And so I’m thankful for Lent, my hesitancy to celebrate it, and God’s faithfulness through each season, including this one.
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us."
- Romans 8:31-34