This week, Christians around the world begin Lent – the 40-day period of fasting, prayer, and repentance leading to Easter.
In seminary, one of my friends eagerly awaited his yearly celebration of Lent, calling it his “favorite church season.” Since Lent starts with a morbid reminder of human mortality – “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” – I always wondered if he needed therapy more than ashes on his forehead. As Christmas faded into fond memory, I dreaded Lent’s approach. Only it stood between Easter and me. Forty days of guilt whenever I ate chocolate.
A few years ago, I stopped struggling with my bad attitude toward Lent. I gave up Lent for Lent. I skipped Ash Wednesday, made no promises to God, and instituted no rigorous prayer schedule. I wanted to enjoy one March with no onerous spiritual obligations.
An odd thing happened, however, during my Lenten non-observance. I began to understand and experience Lent in new and deeper ways. When freed from expectations and requirements, sermons and scriptures spoke to my soul. By the end of Lent, I found myself willingly attending extra services, including two Good Friday liturgies. On Easter Sunday, the resurrection broke over me with unexpected power – with love joyfully overcoming the intense introspection that built during my non-Lenten weeks.
Giving up Lent for Lent taught me a paradoxical principle found in many faiths: that which we give up returns to us. When we cast our bread upon the water, it comes back multiplied. Jesus taught that to save our lives, we must lose them. The last shall be first in God’s Kingdom. The meek shall inherit the earth.
Scoffers and believers alike have often misunderstood these teachings. For a secular person, giving up to gain might appear as either reverse self-centeredness or stupidity. And believers sometimes treat this paradox as a magic cure-all, a kind of spiritual excuse to avoid practicing justice. (After all, the poor can look forward to heaven; why help them now?) But both miss the point. When we cling tightly to our own desires, we struggle and suffer. When we let go of these desires, God can move us toward deeper spiritual understanding and compassion. Our desire melts into God’s desire for shalom.
This spiritual paradox was enshrined by 19th century evangelicals – and later borrowed by Twelve Step groups – as “Let Go and Let God.” When I was younger, I heard this spiritual catch phrase in church and thought it superficial. Through the years, however, I have learned the essential truth expressed in this oft-repeated mantra.
To give up, to surrender to God, is neither popular nor easy. And you cannot make someone else do it – that is oppression – and has often been misused to control others. But surrender is a truthful way of life, the way that Jesus preached and modeled, the way that he called his followers to. Buddhists have sometimes enacted this principle better than Christians, teaching that attachment is the source of human suffering and detachment is the path to fulfillment.
When I gave up Lent for Lent, it become clear that I needed to give up the idea that certain religious disciplines would bring me closer to God. This belief had plagued me since I was an evangelical teenager struggling with my congregation’s expectation for a “daily quiet time.” Never able to maintain this program of spiritual rigor, I felt like a Christian failure. When I finally admitted that I could not do it, I experienced a new freedom in prayer. Giving up led me to a richer and deeper connection of God in prayer, and led me to practice prayer in ways that resonate with who God has made me to be – unique, meaningful, and transformative. Not a program, but a way of being.
Lent tempts Christians to try to fulfill other people’s expectations of what spirituality should look like, usually related to some sort of religious achievement or self-mortification. But Lent is neither success nor punishment. Ultimately, Lent urges us to let go of self-deception and pleasing others. These 40 days ask only one thing of us: to find our truest selves on a journey toward God.
Giving up Lent for Lent meant giving up guilt. Although I have been back to church for Ash Wednesday many times since I gave up Lent for Lent, that year freed me from spiritual tyranny and helped me understand Easter anew. The journey to Easter is not a mournful denial of our humanity. Rather, Lent embraces our humanity – our deepest fears, our doubts, our mistakes and sins, our grief, and our pain. Lent is also about joy, self-discovery, connecting with others, and doing justice. Lent is not morbid church services. It is about being fully human and knowing God’s presence in the crosshairs of blessing and bane. And it is about waiting, waiting in those crosshairs, for resurrection.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco).