I have mixed feelings about Lent. Part of me wants to throw myself into it with super-human resolve. Part of me fears I’ll do exactly this.
I have a long history of eating disorders, depression and perfectionism. Ask me to fast for 40 days and I’ll do forty-one. Tell me to do 40 press-ups and I’ll do 400. I’m all about a certain kind of ‘self-restraint.’ But it’s nearly killed me.
You’ll tell me, rightly, that this is not what Lent is about. But it’s sometimes painted as a grand exercise of will-power. Here’s how a national newspaper sums it up:
“On Ash Wednesday, people over the globe give up certain foods or habits to improve their health or demonstrate self-restraint.”
We don’t need to be religious to worship self-will. Our culture screams this message from every magazine cover. All of us want to make ourselves better but the bible says that this is our problem. We’re not just a wee bit lazy or slightly unhealthy; we’re utterly lost. And tiny self-improvements are like aspirin – fine for the common cold, but no good at raising the dead.
So what then, is the hope of Lent? What does it offer to someone like me, who’s all about self-improvement?
Perhaps the key is to figure out who, primarily, is doing the sacrificing. During Lent, Christians remember the time when Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray before beginning his work. At his baptism, this Jesus is declared to be the Spirit-filled Son of God. He comes, not to tell us to try harder; but to save us. He is the Rescuing King who fights for us and gives us His victory.
This is what we observe when we see Christ fasting for 40 days. He is taking on our enemy – an enemy we cannot defeat by ourselves – and triumphing for us. Lent leads to Easter – it’s not first about our self giving but His; not about what we can do but what He has done.
What an amazing and liberating truth for anyone who’s ever made a mistake. Feel like you’re not good enough? Jesus comes for you. Frustrated because you’ve broken another resolution? Jesus comes for you. Jesus hasn’t come to tell us to get our act together. He’s come to tell us that we can’t – but He has done it for us. He calls us to admit that we can’t change ourselves and He offers us grace.
Biblical self-control is not a frenzied drive to work or exercise or starve. It’s about receiving the grace of Jesus. As believers we can enter into our own desert experiences and we can participate in His way of self-sacrifice. But a truly Christian experience of Lent shouldn’t leave me focused on my sacrifices but His. That is what changes us. That is what we celebrate. And that is what Lent means for me.
This article is also published on Eden.co.uk