Lent will begin on February 26 this year with the observance of Ash Wednesday. As we draw closer, each person who desires the benefits that are offered by seeking renewal during the Season of Lent should ask the important question, “Am I ready for Lent?” For many faithful people the preparation for Lent simply consists of making the decision about what they will give up or what extra they will do for Lent. However, that is really a bad place to start and end in the preparation for Lent. The real starting point in preparing for Lenten renewal is discerning what you need. What should change in your life? What needs to be eliminated or at least be brought under control? What is governing your life that should not have as much control over you? What should be added to your life? What is missing from your life that, if added, stands the chance of opening you to the real potential of experiencing and being changed by God’s unfailing love?
Perhaps we need to step back for a moment to think about what Lent is really all about. Lent is a time of renewal, growth in faith and coming to a deeper understanding of who we are as God’s people. It is out of love that God calls each one of us to be renewed in our commitment to the way of life that God gives us to follow. God has given us a way of life to follow, not because God has a desire to control us like puppets or robots, but because God wants us to grow. God wants us to be victorious in overcoming our weaknesses. God wants us to find real, lasting and nourishing happiness. While we are called to grow in faith, holiness and our relationship with God each and every day of our lives, Lent gives us an opportunity to really focus our attention on that endeavor. Let’s face it, lives are busy. The things that make demands on our time continues to grow no matter what stage of life we are in at the moment. If we expect to accomplish something, many people need a specific time to get it done. Otherwise, we fall into that unfortunate trap of believing that we will “get to it one day.” If we are honest, that statement translates into “it is just not that important.” The “I’ll get to it someday” items on our to-do lists rarely get accomplished. So Lent comes to us as a focused time where we are called to experience growth, renewal and a better understanding of our relationship with God.
For far too long, the dominate view of Lent has simply been one where it is a time to pay for our wrong-doings. The view was, and still is for too many well-intention people, that we gave up candy, alcohol or something else in order to suffer for all the ways we did not succeed in our call to holiness. If you did not suffer during Lent, you were doing it wrong.
When I was about 10 years old, I gave up comic books for Lent. My teacher in Catholic school had told us about the need to give up something that was very special and important to you so that you were suffering for your sins. Jesus suffered and Lent was our turn to suffer. Comic books were very important to me. I loved the life of superheroes. I was thrilled to think about having superpowers at my disposal so that I could help people. I was always ready for the next edition of Superman, Spider-man, Thor, Green Lantern and others to be available. I was always willing to sacrifice to get the money to buy the next comic book. I would collect returnable bottles and return them to the store in order to collect enough money. I would get up early on Saturday mornings to collect newspapers from the trash and haul them in my wagon to the scrap yard hoping that there would be enough for a few new comic books in my collection. If I was lucky, I would get enough for the latest comic books and new baseball cards to add to my growing collection. So when I was told that I needed to give up something important to pay for my sins, I went with the top of my list, comic books which were the nourishment for what many called a vivid imagination in a 10-year-old boy. Even at that age, the results did not impress me. Easter came and I was still committing the sins of a 10-year-old. All during Lent I was obsessed with the thoughts of the satisfaction that would come when I went to the corner store after Easter to purchase all the comic books I missed during Lent. Indeed, I spent all my post-Lent free time catching up. Nothing changed in my life, except for suffering for the entirety of Lent without knowing what my beloved superheroes had been up to. I guess that I had a bit of satisfaction when my teacher said she was proud of my willingness to go without comic books for Lent, but the suffering brought about nothing else. The whole focus was on suffering for the sake of suffering.
The fact of the matter is; we cannot pay for our sins. Jesus already did that. What is that makes us believe that Jesus did not cover the whole debt in its totality? My mental image for this is that of two people grabbing hold of a restaurant bill arguing about who is going to pay. Our faith tells us, that Jesus suffered and died to pay for our sins. We should be grateful. We should be ecstatic. We should be filled with joy. It is gratitude and joy that should direct our Lenten efforts. When we acknowledge the magnitude of the gift that Jesus has given us, we then stand the chance of better appreciating and understanding what God wants for us. Rather than believing that we are somehow paying for our sins we understand that true gratitude from demonstrating that we do not want Jesus’ gift to be in vain. In appreciation and love we should want the kind of life that God wants us to have – the kind of life that Jesus paid dearly for us to enjoy. Even if it takes a lifetime, we should have the desire to creep closer and closer to God. That is what Lent is all about. Growing closer to God because we realize and appreciate what God has done for us. This is why it is important to think about our Lenten journey. We can get to Easter with a true sense of renewal and growth or we can come to Easter thinking only how good it is that our Lenten sacrifice is over and done with for another year – ready to gorge ourselves on whatever it was that we abstained from during Lent.
If we expect Lent to have real results, if we truly desire renewal, we must be willing to discern what it is that we need most in order to get closer to living the kind of life we know God wants us to live. What that is and how it is approached will be different for different people. There is no “one-size-fits-all” journey to renewal. When Jesus was in this world, he offered renewal to many people. When people came to him Jesus looked at each person and ascertained what that individual needed most to experience renewal. For a rich young man, renewal would come only if he gave away his possessions because they were obviously in his way. For a woman who was ill for a long time renewal would come only when she acknowledged the strength of her faith. For another, renewal would come when he returned to his family after experiencing healing even though he wanted to remain with Jesus and the Apostles. In discerning what we need most in order to draw closer to God we will find that sometimes we need to put something down and sometimes we need to pick something up. There are things, habits, mindsets and behaviors that definitely are impediments to a stronger relationship with God and we would do well to put them down and walk away from them. These should be things that we know we should change not just during Lent, but permanently. If you give up video games or television during Lent let it be because you recognize then need to spend some of that time doing other things. Sure, you may go back to watching some television or playing video games after Easter, but the desire and goal should be to do so in moderation and not have every free moment be absorbed by these things. If something is getting in our way of living God’s life, then by all means we should try to put it down, but for good and not simply as a Lenten exercise. Even if we are trying to reduce our use of something or participation in something, the reduction is the goal. Otherwise, we may find that after the period of abstinence during Lent is over we are in even a worse situation than before. In some cases, Lent will just be the start of something that we will have to work on for a long time after Lent is over. Authentic renewal means working on a permanent change to whatever is controlling us in a negative way or getting in the way of our relationship with God. Yes, this may bring about suffering. However, suffering is not the goal. Change is the goal. Allowing Lent to be a time of suffering for the sake of suffering does nothing to help us live the life that is fitting for Children of God or experience the renewal that Gods calls us to go through.
Once we have discerned our personal need for Lent, we must also discern what kind of renewal we hope to experience from the practice. If you decide to give up television or video games for Lent, what do you hope will be changed? If television or video games get in the way of your relationships, then the expected outcome must be reducing the amount of time spent with television so that you can spend more time with those who really matter. Or perhaps the amount of time in front of the screen prevents you from reading the Bible, praying or doing some of the activities that make you feel productive and satisfied. The purpose of refraining from television would be to free up time for something more that will help you be renewed. Sure, you may go back to television or video games or whatever after Lent is over, but hopefully not to the detriment of the other more worthwhile activities. Renewal would come from being nourished by more than that which has consumed your time. If you simply go back to the old ways after Lent, where is the renewal? How are you changed? Any suffering that occurred will have been wasted. Lent is for change, renewal and growth.
To participate in Lent does not necessarily require us to give something up. Discernment may in fact help us to realize that something is missing from our Christian life and we need to add more. Jesus has called us to be among those who bring God’s presence into the world. Perhaps you are not using your talents, time and energy to help others, make a difference and allow God to be seen in you. Lent presents the opportunity to recognize and respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. Discipleship requires a willingness to continue to grow. Perhaps reading some spiritual works can help with growth during Lent. Maybe coming to a better understanding of God’s laws and God’s way will allow you to better comprehend how God tried to guide us on our journey. Whether you choose to work in some way to assist those in need or open yourself to new wisdom and knowledge, the goal would still be to allow it to be something that will continue to be part of your life after the season of Lent. Lasting change brings real growth. In a spiritual sense, growth helps to better see with eyes of faith what God wants to do for us.
There are times when our needs are staring us right in the face and we fail to recognize how ignoring the obvious can limit our growth and hinder us from taking the next step in reaching our potential. Clutter in our lives can easily create obstacles to being free to take on new endeavors and may even cause a person to feel controlled by the clutter. Something as simple as an overcrowded closet can prevent us from feeling true peace. If a closet is so packed that you no longer know what you have, perhaps Lent is a good time to begin the process of restoring harmony. Take a bag or container and each day during Lent place one item in it. At the end of Lent, donate the items to a worthy cause. The clutter may not be all gone with the conclusion of Lent, but the process will have begun and success will come by continuing.
Taking one item a day out of an over packed closet may seem insignificant, it may help us to realize that we very often have to go slow but deliberate in our quest for ongoing conversion. Our expectations must be realistic and manageable. If not, all we do is set ourselves up to fail. Unrealistic expectations have caused far too many well-intention people to give up. When we allow our efforts to be realistic, we set ourselves up for success. Enthusiasm is a wonderful quality, but it can also cause us to bite off way more than we can chew. We have to be honest with our need to experience conversion but we must be just as honest in recognizing our limitations and weaknesses. Remembering that we do not have to do it all during Lent is beneficial to ultimate victory. Our Lenten endeavors are the beginning of change that is meant to be permanent. How fortunate we are that God is patient with us. God knows our limitations and calls us to persevere, even in setbacks, because God wants us to be victorious. Jesus demonstrated great patience with the Apostles and all the disciples. Jesus knew that they could not comprehend everything and get it it all correct quickly. Jesus gave his followers what they needed to begin the process of bringing the light of Christ to the world. In many ways, it remains a slow process. Over zealous efforts have seldom, if ever, been successful or maintained. Human limitations are real and if they are ignored can lead to a feeling that success is not attainable. In a moment of enthusiasm, Peter said that he would never deny Jesus and would follow Him anywhere. It was a noble statement and in the moment Peter most likely was very sincere. However, human limitations showed how dangerous it can be to place our trust in desire alone. Thankfully, Peter did not quit with the failure. Instead, he learned the value of taking one day at a time in our response to God. All people of faith should be grateful for God’s patience. God will show us what we need to do next. Many of those who are held up as examples of faithfulness and holiness had to learn that lesson. We are called to do what is required for the next step in ongoing-conversion process. While we may not be absolutely certain of the path we will journey, if we persevere and are patient, the destination will always be God.
Lent is an opportunity to be renewed in our commitment to continue our journey. Lent can only help us to be renewed if we take an honest, realistic approach to what we really need in order to grow in our recognition and appreciation of all that God has done for us and continues to offer to us.
May this Lenten season help us to turn back to God with all our hearts and fill us with new hope, increased faith and renewed commitment to the life that God desires for us.