When most people think of Lent, they probably think of its role in helping people confess and renounce sin. The self-denial that is inherent in how many Christian groups practice this part of the liturgical calendar is a perfect mechanism for helping people come to terms with their sinfulness. I am convinced, however, that if we are going to get the most out of the season, we need to see its relevance for every season of our lives.
Below, I make some suggestions about how we might do that. I hope that you will add your own in the “Comments” section below. Let’s work together to make Lent a more relevant and effective spiritual tool for all of us.
When We Succeed
Sometimes, life goes well for us. We are happy, our spouses and children are healthy, and all seems right with the world. What does Lent mean to us then? How can it help us be more faithful in our relationship with Christ?
First, Lent can remind us that success in this world is not our goal. It is nice when we get it, but it is not why Christ came. Lent should always draw us deeper into fellowship with Jesus. When that happens, we are reminded that faithfulness to Christ often brings us into conflict with the systems, institutions, and values that dominate our world. Indeed, Christ came to free us from the influence of these corrupt systems, institutions, and values. Lent helps us to examine whether our success might, in fact, be a sign that we have compromised with the illegitimate powers that exercise hegemony over human life. It helps us see the ways in which we have bowed down to the idols of our age in order to obtain the things we want.
Second, Lent reminds us of the suffering that characterizes the existence of many in our world. It does this by pointing our attention to the life and ministry of Jesus. We learn that we should be using our success to alleviate the suffering of those around us—just like Jesus did. And, just like Jesus, we realize that our time to suffer may be just around the bend.
When We Struggle
In my experience, Lent seems most relevant when we struggle. When sin has us under its thumb and we just don’t know where to turn, Lent gives us the opportunity to push the “reset” button on our lives and give ourselves again to the task of holiness. It gives us specific practices (fasting, prayer, etc.) that can mitigate the influence of sin on our lives and that can help us focus more fully on Christ.
Perhaps the most important thing that Lent does, however, is turn our attention to the atonement that Christ accomplished through his death on the cross. One of sin’s most powerful weapons is the perception that its contaminating effects cannot be undone. Lent reminds us of the lengths to which Christ went to demonstrate his love for us, and it reminds us that God has honored those efforts by forgiving all of us who are in Christ.
Forgiveness is not something that we deserve; anyone who takes Lent seriously will realize very quickly that we are unworthy of the gift that God has bestowed on us. Nevertheless, God has given it to us in Christ. So the real issue is not what we think of ourselves (sin’s lie) but what Christ has done to rescue us (the gospel). In that knowledge, we have the power to move forward with our lives even in the face of sin’s brutal attacks.
When We Suffer
I have been thinking a lot lately about the relevance of Lent for those who suffer. My wife and I are all too familiar with grief and loss, and, in that context, the concerns of Lent seem ephemeral and unimportant.
I have become convinced, however, that Lent does has meaning for those who suffer. It reminds us that, in the words of Jurgen Möltmann, we serve a “crucified God.” God the Father knows what it is to experience loss, and God the Son knows what it is to suffer. The God of Scripture is not “the unmoved mover” of so much ancient philosophy (and modern theology). He is the God who suffers with us and for us. Again, we don’t deserve that kind of condescension. But He did it, and He did it because He loves us.
Moreover, any substantive reflection on Lent will ultimately lead to reflection upon Easter. If God had suffered with us, but to no effect, it would be a nice gesture at best and an instance of insanity at worst. But God’s suffering accomplished something. It inaugurated the new age—an age of light and life for all who are in Christ. That age is not yet been consummated, and the old age, characterized as it is by darkness and death, has not yet passed away. So, we suffer—just as our Lord also suffered. But the night is almost over. Morning is on its way. And what a glorious morning it will be!