Today I wish to direct your attention to an article by Mark Galli at Christianity Today: “Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent“.
For the uninitiated: Part of observing Lent is participating in some spiritual discipline that will move you forward in your relationship with God. For most people, this involves giving up something like sweets, wine, or TV. The idea here is to create space in your life that God is free to occupy.
Mark Galli offers a different take on this. Trying to sustain this discipline over the course of the 40-day season of Lent is a very taxing affair. You don’t really grow close to God as a result of this, instead you feel yourself missing whatever you have given up. And even if you succeed, there is the potential for pride which undercuts whatever good you may have achieved. (At least that is his experience. Your mileage may vary.)
So the whole point of participating in a Lenten self-discipline is not to improve yourself spiritually, but rather to teach yourself that you CAN’T improve spiritually but for the power of Christ.
Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.
To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.
What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.
…So for me Easter doesn’t become a day when I thank God that he has made me more disciplined, not like those non-liturgical folks who don’t even observe Lent. Instead, it becomes an occasion to celebrate the fact that my self-respect does not hinge on my self-discipline, and that my very lack of discipline is the paradoxical sign of the gospel. Indeed, while we were gluttons and prayerless, while we didn’t give a rip about the poor, Christ died for us. It’s not for the spiritually fit and healthy that he came, but for the unfit and unhealthy. We may be faithless in areas small and large, but he remains faithful through and through.