Interesting thoughts from my friend Mark Galli on the role and meaning of Lent, much of which overlap with worries I’ve articulated elsewhere about our sanctification being reduced to a “technique” or “project”:
I grant that there are superstar Christians whose motives during and after Lent are more purely God-driven. And I ask for their prayers. But I suspect that most Christians are like me, and being inveterately selfish people, we naturally try to turn Lent into an exercise of self-improvement, though we do give God a supporting role. But why bother with God at all if mere self-improvement is the goal? There are plenty of helpful self-improvement programs out there—to help us lose weight, to help us organize our schedules, to help us have better sex, and so on and so forth. Most never enlist God’s help, and I don’t have a problem with that. I take it that God planned it this way. Maybe he’s saying, “Hey, when it comes to small things like this, I’ve given you sufficient abilities to manage your lives on your own. Why are you bothering me about this?” In short, I don’t believe we need Lent or God to improve ourselves in these small matters.
But we need Lent and God if we’re going to get saved.
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.
There are a lot of facets to Mark’s piece, and most of it I agree with. But when he goes on to describe Lent as a “miserable way to live,” all I can say is that my experience hasn’t always lined up. He’s right that at Easter we can say with Chrysostom that all are welcome to the feast, regardless of whether we’ve kept our Lenten disciplines or not.
But I have sometimes found amidst the barbecue and bonbons that the Lenten season had its own charms, and those not of the masochistic sort but of the Psalm 119 varietal: “Oh how I love Thy Law!” Amidst the mystery of reserving myself from certain foods and fun I occasionally catch a glimpse of a way of life that, for all that is not contained within it, is still fundamentally good.
Lent digs up the unsteady process of sanctification that often goes on beneath the surface of our attention and give us a glimpse not only of its painful slowness, but of its prospects. Yes, many days we fail and those we don’t often lead to self-righteousness. But the trick with self-control is that without it, we are not really selves without it, but rather are simply bundles of urges and ill-directed desires. Learning to delight in the abstention, in the negation of the impulses and the attachment to the world, sometimes might be a misery. But it also might become a joyful preparation for throwing ourselves into the celebration of Easter. Because God not only gives himself to us: in doing so, he gives us ourselves, calling our being out of non-being and establishing us as “new creations.”
None of this impinges upon the fact that, as Mark points out, the gift of self-control must be given, for it too is a fruit of the Spirit. Nor does it entail that our self-respect hinges upon our ability to keep the fast, or that we ought think for a minute about ourselves if we do. But in reminding us of our desperate need for grace, Lent amplifies our awareness that the mercies of Easter are new every morning, even while the mourning of our sin is occasionally punctuated by our joyful gratitude for a moment of success. It may be that we are only doing what we ought, and not making any real progress at all.
But when that possibility has been foreclosed on by sin and the power to do so comes from God, any day where we are given strength to keep the feast is an occasion for the genuine joy. Lent is a season where our receiving trumps our abstaining, and where we feast on a good that is deeper and more enduring than any in this world.