So you may or may not know much about Lent. This may be the first time you have heard of it or the 30th time. Growing up my church didn’t celebrate Lent. The first time I heard of it was in high school when a friend of mine, who went to a different church, was asking me what I would be giving up for Lent. I stared at him in confusion because I didn’t know what Lent was and had no intention of giving anything up for it. We proceeded to talk about how Lent was the season before Easter that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday. I was obviously new to all of this and asked him to explain what Ash Wednesday was. He explained how traditionally during Lent, Christians give something up as a sort of prolonged fast. That the way in which we give up TV, Social Media, eating meat, or something else, is a way of creating a sort of penance for ourselves. It is a self-denial that is meant to trigger in us a deeper dependency on Jesus. This was the first I had ever heard of people doing something like this. And honestly it seemed a bit strange.
I have always struggled with discipline. Not being disciplined for doing something bad. But creating discipline in my life that creates structure and intentionality. Things like dieting, getting up early, daily disciplines, weekly disciplines, these don’t come easy to me. I have to work very hard to get them started and certainly to maintain them for any extended period of time. But one thing I thrive on is competition. And so having a 40 day window, which is the standard length of time during Lent, where I am challenged to give something up, that feeling of competing against the clock, against the calendar, against failure, drives me to stay on task and stick with a discipline.
Now this may seem counterintuitive to discuss spiritual disciplines and then competing to achieve them in ourselves. But one thing I have discovered about the disciplines, whether it be working out, eating right, spiritual disciplines, or whatever discipline you are after, is knowing yourself and what motivates you is paramount to creating something that will last and genuinely transform your life. That doesn’t mean I ask people how many times they prayed in a week so I can out pray them. But it does mean that I set a goal with myself and not achieving that goal is the thing I compete against. See, competition is not what I am after. The discipline is my goal. But a healthy dose of competition is often the means by which I achieve the thing I am really shooting for, which is having the discipline in my life.
Wow, what does all that have to do with Lent? Great question. I’m glad you asked. The thing about Lent that no one will tell you is that we all set lofty goals for what we want to give up during lent. And yet most of us will find ourselves 10, 12, 15 days in and we are no longer giving up what we decided to give up during Lent. What is the cause for our failure? It’s not that we chose things too hard to give up or the wrong thing to sacrifice. It’s that for most of us we completely reversed the entire intention of Lent.
I discovered something about 7 years ago regarding Lent. Lent isn’t about me. Now, you may be thinking, well duh. But think about it for a moment. Giving something up is always the first thing we discuss when talking about Lent. We talk about fasting, which is a spiritual discipline that is often defined as giving up food. Really the idea of giving something up becomes very self oriented because we think about the thing being missed. When I fast from food I am often thinking about how hungry I am, how delicious a good steak would be, or why it sucks to not be eating. When we abstain from certain things what often happens is that we have a hard time seeing the point of what we are abstaining from. And Lent is no difference. When the point of Lent is about giving something up, rather than gaining something incredibly important, then the focus and intention has been reversed.
Lent isn’t about giving something up. It’s about gaining something important. It’s about gaining intimacy with Jesus. This is actually the intention of every spiritual discipline. The point of spiritual disciplines is not to master the discipline. It’s to create space where intimacy with Jesus can happen. Meditation, prayer, fasting, contemplation, are not means to help you achieve better meditation, prayer, fasting or contemplation. They are means to help you achieve greater intimacy with Jesus. The problem is that so many churches and Christians have made the point of spiritual disciplines, the discipline themselves. It’s the same with Lent. The point of Lent is not to master a 40 day fast. It’s not to see if you go 40 days without TV, social media, food, or whatever you are trying to give up. It isn’t a diet or a way to master your addiction to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or posting on Instagram. It’s about positioning yourself so that encounters with Jesus can happen more regularly.
Yes, it means you give things up. But it’s not giving something up for the sake of giving it up. You give it up in order to create a moment and space where you can meet with Jesus. You give up TV at nights and use that time to read scripture. To pray. You fast from eating breakfast so that the time you usually spend eating will be filled with conversations with Jesus. When we reverse the intention of Lent or of any spiritual discipline, what happens is that we get frustrated, we get antsy, we can’t wait for it to be over so we can say we did it. Or, we simply give up. But when we allow Lent and Spiritual Disciplines to be what they are intended to be, what we get is closeness with Jesus. We get moments of silence and solitude before the Lord. We create space for Jesus to minister directly to our hearts, our anxieties, our hopes and dreams. And what tends to happen is that we find ourselves craving more of Jesus. Rather than craving to have TV back. We crave to make more space for Jesus, for the silence.
So this is what I want you to try this year during Lent. I want you seek intimacy with Jesus. I want the 40 days before Easter to be an intentional examining of your life to see where you can and should create moments with the Lord. Start with something simple. Don’t create a giant list of things you are giving up. You will probably be disappointed with the results. Start small and practical. What if you woke up 10 minutes earlier each day and spent that time in prayer, in journaling, in silence with Jesus. Choose 2 meals a week you will fast from and spend that time reading scripture or singing worship songs. Take 1 night a week off from watching TV and spend that time talking about Jesus with your spouse, kids, friends, or whoever is around you. Turn the radio off in your car on the way to work and lay out your anxieties, fears, and heart issues before God.
Find some ways you can connect with Jesus during Lent. Lent starts on Wednesday, March 6th. Make a plan for new ways you want to create space to encounter Jesus before Easter. Maybe you will have to give something up in order to create that space. If you do, do so with the intention of filling that space with a moment with Jesus.