As I forego sweets for 46 days and add another reading to my morning devotional time, sometimes I wonder why I do this every year. Most Christ-followers don’t observe Lent at all; the majority of those who do attend Catholic or liturgical churches. Why is that?
It’s so much easier to do something than to do without, to give gifts than to give up something. And so, most of us don’t.
Lent can become little more than a do-over for failed New Year’s Resolutions. On January first, you may resolve to stop eating desserts, and by February, you leave that by the wayside. Then Lent rolls around. You have another chance to fast from dessert (swimsuit season is coming up), or wine, or if you’re really strong, social media.
But why? Why do this at all? The roughly 40 days of fasting isn’t meant to imitate Christ during the weeks leading up to the cross, but rather to acknowledge two events in the Bible. The first is the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness; the second is the 40 days Jesus was tempted in the desert.
During his last six weeks in a human body, Jesus didn’t stop eating or drinking wine or socializing with friends. Mere hours before he was arrested, he had a big feast with his best friends. Of course, that came after he humbled himself to serve them, one last time, by washing their dusty, smelly feet.
Jesus didn’t live differently at the end. He always served. His whole life was one of giving up. Jesus gave up face-to-face time with his Abba. Everything he did fit into his ultimate mission. He lived to die. To die for us.
To sacrifice sweets feels so trite and insignificant when I think of what he sacrificed for me.
Maybe the point of Lent isn’t to claim that my small doing without helps me identify with his massive giving up. Perhaps the point is more what I put in place of the thing I’m doing without.
I can replace it with listening to him. With reflecting on the cross and what it means to me personally.
It takes time to listen. It’s easy to read the Word and then go about your day, but sometimes you just need to stop and mull it over a while. The same with prayer. My prayers are so often one-sided, with me doing all the talking, not giving him to chance to speak to my heart.
In order to listen well, you need silence. You must be still first to know that he is God (Psalm 46:10).
You need to obey what you hear. When I lived overseas, I went to a conference once with leaders (mostly men) from nearly every country in both Eastern and Western Europe. An American read a verse aloud about listening, a.k.a “hearing” to most of us Americans.
I commented that the word “listen” has a deeper meaning in Romanian. Listen goes hand in hand with “obey.” You don’t just hear; you listen and obey what you’re told. One after another, the national leaders in that room agreed that listen meant the same thing in their languages.
Somehow we’ve lost that. The closest we come to that meaning is when a mother says, “If you don’t listen to me, you’re going to be in big trouble, Buster.” She doesn’t mean hear. Buster may have heard her tell him to clean up his room five times. She means obey.
Maybe Lent is about slowing down, taking time out to reflect, and listening. And then when you hear, you obey what he asks you to do.
I’ll bet it will be something more significant than giving up chocolate.