Saturday, March 04, 2017

What is Lent?

We are now in the Lenten season, a period of six weeks that lasts between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. According to many Christian faiths, including the Catholic faith in which I grew up, Lent is a time of fasting for the purpose of penance, repentance, atonement and self-denial. In plain speak, it’s about giving up something I love as a sacrifice to God, and to repay Him for all the sinning I’ve done throughout the year. 

Basically, if I promise God I’ll stop eating sugar, watching TV, saying swear words, or some other chosen fast for 40 days, he’ll absolve me from my sins.

Does that not seem ridiculous to you? 

I am no longer Catholic in my Christian walk, but I am still a believer in Lent. I believe it’s the most holy time of the year, but that’s only because my definition of Lent has changed dramatically from my Catholic roots.

Lent is not about atoning for my sins. There is nothing I can do to earn God’s favor. It has been given to me by grace. My debt has been repaid through Jesus’ sacrifice. I am only asked to have faith (which is a deeper conversation, as faith is not just about saying “I believe,” but about continuously developing my relationship with Jesus, and letting my life reflect that relationship).

So if Lent isn't about atonement, what is it for? You could say it’s about honoring Jesus’ sacrifice through a sacrifice of my own—but even that seems silly. How can I compare giving up sugar (my actual Lent fast this year) to Jesus sacrificing His life so that I could be forgiven? And if I fail in my fast, what does that say about my love for Jesus? Do I not love and honor Jesus enough if I taste sugar before my 40 days are up? By placing a value on my fast, I am opening the door to unnecessary guilt—and I have enough to feel guilty over! 

A better explanation of Lent is that I’m fasting for 40 days as a way of drawing closer to God. Every time I crave sugar, I must shift my focus to God and lean on Him for strength. If it feels too hard, I must pray harder. If I succumb to my sugar addiction, I am to seek forgiveness—not for eating sugar, but for not trusting God to heal me from my addiction. And then I am to experience the fullness of his grace and move forward in trusting Him as my strength. 

Further, this 40-day fast is not about giving up something for 40 days and then living as usual for the rest of the year. Rather, it’s about developing a deeper relationship with God—learning to lean on Him in my struggle, and to crave Him instead of earthly things. Giving up sugar is symbolic of denying the temptations of this world and proclaiming God as my only need.

“A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Galatians 2:16

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:8

“Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.Romans 6:13-14

Have I been perfect in my fast? 4 days in, and I have not had sugar. However, I’ve been leaning on my own willpower instead of on God. I have filled the void with other foods instead of filling it with prayer. In this, I have not been perfect. 

But Lent is not about perfection, it’s about aiming for devotion. I have years and years of experience in relying on my own strength. When it comes to food addictions, I keep forgetting how badly that’s worked out for me. Now is my opportunity to develop my muscle of faith—to believe that God can cure my appetite for sugar, and can fill the void it leaves behind. It’s not my perfection in abstinence that counts, but my willingness to lean on God. Lent is not about my sacrifice (it’s not about ME!), but about admitting that I can’t do this alone and letting God give me the strength I need.

Lord, it’s natural for me to depend on my own willpower and resolve to fulfill what I want to accomplish. This is why I keep failing. I keep forgetting that I wasn’t meant to do this alone. I am falling on old habits in my resolve to abstain during my fast. If I keep going this route, I will fail. There is only so long that this resolve will be a strong enough reason to avoid sugar, or anything I choose to fast from. But if I lean on You in moments of weakness, You will carry me through. My faith matters more than my sacrifice, and my strength comes from You. Thank you for always being with me, and for giving me the boost I need when I’m tempted to give in. I want to trust you in every struggle. Thank you for your patience. Amen.

Note to readers: If you want to understand the full effect of God’s grace, I encourage you to read the entire book of Romans.

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