The beginning of Lent always fills me with some feelings of spiritual dread, both as a Christian myself, and as a shepherd of the souls of others. You see, this is tricky ground onto which we are about to step. If observed with the right spirit and within a proper Biblical framework, then I believe that Lent truly can be an helpful tool in our continuing process of spiritual formation, our being rooted and grounded in Christ so that we might know the breadth and length and height and depth of His love for us, and for all of creation (Ephesians 3:17-18). I have kept Lents in the past that have produced this result in me. But if observed with the wrong spirit and without a proper Biblical framework, then I know that Lent can be positively dangerous to a soul. I know this because I have also kept Lents in the past that have damaged me spiritually. The simplest way I know to distinguish between a Lent that is spiritually constructive and a Lent that is spiritually destructive is to remember one of the more familiar parables that Jesus told — the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Luke alone of the four Gospel Evangelists tells us the story (18:9-14) –
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A Pharisee’s Lent will hinder your relationship with God.
A Publican’s Lent will serve it.
A Pharisee’s Lent is a Lent of works righteousness, a promotion of all those things that we do for God that we think will somehow demand His attention and deserve His appreciation — “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Spiritually, this is our default position. Some would say that it’s actually hardwired into us. We always think that if we’ll just “do more” and “try harder,” then God will love us “more” and “harder.” The premise of this notion is that God loves us because of something meritorious in us – something we think, something we believe, or something we do. This takes a variety of forms: doctrinal, denominational, moral, political, experiential and liturgical. I’ve played this game in most of these arenas at one time or another in my 50+ years of following Jesus.
There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if I could curry God’s favor because my Christology is totally orthodox by Nicene/Chalcedonian standards. There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if God loves me more because I belong to the right church that baptizes in the right way and that observes communion on the right schedule. There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if God accepts me more completely because of the political party that best represents me and my concerns, or because of the candidate that I voted for in the last election, or because of the positions that I have taken on the pressing social questions of the moment. There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if I am a better Christian than you are because I have or have not prayed in tongues, because I do or do not exclusively use the King James Version of the Bible, because I drink or do not drink adult beverages, because I go or do not go to movies, because I prefer pipe organs and hymns to guitars and choruses, or vice versa, because I believe or do not believe in a Premillennial, post-tribulation rapture of the church, or don’t, because I pray “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, or “trespasses.” In every case, I’ve acted as if it’s what I do, or what I think, or what I believe that convinces God to love me. I make myself “worthy” of God’s affection and attention by being “right” on any number of issues and practices. I think myself as being more “deserving” His care and concern because I am correct about the things that I believe matter to Him, and to me.
A Pharisee’s Lent is a Lent during which extra spiritual disciplines are taken on and little luxuries and pleasures are deliberately given up in order to show God just how serious we really are about Him. And while we would probably never admit it out loud, at some deep level we do these things thinking that God will notice our herculean sacrifice, especially when compared to others, and that God will then bless us in some special way — “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” They’re a way of earning “brownie points” with the Divine. If I don’t have a drink for the 40 days of Lent, or eat a dessert, or say a cuss word, or tell a lie, or say my prayers, or read my Bible, or go to church every Sunday, then God will owe me some special favor come Easter.
The Publican’s Lent is a different kind of experience altogether. The Publican’s Lent is an honest admission of guilt and a simple cry for help – “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It’s the same spiritual experience that’s at work in the first 4 steps of the 12 Steps recovery program – (1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable; (2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; (3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him; (4) We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. The dynamic of the Publican’s Lent is human helplessness and the availability and sufficiency of Divine mercy. It starts with the recognition that something is fundamentally disordered about us, and it leads us on the path of despair to the personal embrace of grace.
My staff at the church reads an article together each week, and then discusses it. Last week, in anticipation of Lent, we read a “Lenten Spirituality Reflection” written by Laura Sheahen for the “Faith in Focus” section of the March 13, 2006, issue of the Jesuit publication America (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/564/faith-focus/lenten-spirituality-reflection). In my mind, Laura powerfully identified the truth that is at the very heart of the Publican’s Lent –
Most of us go about our lives feeling pretty sure we are not desperate sinners. We do not murder, embezzle or kidnap children. Our lies are mild, a few embellishments on the 1040 or forgivable: “What surprise birthday party?” Our cruelties are unambitious: a coworker snubbed or a clerk snapped at. And most everything can be chalked up to tiredness or psychology or the bad weather. And yet. Occasionally after a crisis, or just a sleepless night, we start to suspect there is something deeply wrong not just with the world or life in general, but with ourselves….
The nagging suspicion grows. Why can’t we shake destructive patterns? Why do we keep yelling at the children about stuff that doesn’t matter? Why do we spend hours watching television, instead of working on the career change that would make us a better person? Why do we hurt the same people over and over? We never settle for less comfort. Why do we always settle for less kindness and honor and compassion? The patterns are so ingrained, so a part of our daily lives, that they are almost impossible to recognize as dangerous. But every now and then, someone shouts to us and we realize there is something we have unwittingly or wittingly let in and fed.
Lenten sacrifices like fasting and giving something up are not about French fries. They are about paying attention, about looking directly at the waste and fatal sluggishness and venom that even decent folks have inside. They are about recognizing that something inside of us, left to its own devices, would choke off the best we can be.
In his marvelous history of the “Jesus People Movement” – God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge (Oxford -2013) – one of the Movement’s earliest leaders said that the realization that reordered his life and turned his world right side up again was the “revelatory insight” that there’s a “rat that lives in the cellar of our soul.” Reflecting on his own spiritual condition, this future leader of the last genuine spiritual awakening in American church history came to this “profound realization” –
I finally got it. I was the rat. And it was my soul that was repenting. I thought to myself, “Maybe there is a God.” I hadn’t considered that possibility in a number of years, when suddenly a peace came over me, my breathing became easier. My chest became lighter. And I said, letting out a long sigh, “Oh, Father forgive me.” And immediately the entire weight that was on my chest was gone, and the rush of relief from my heart was one of exultation… I had never known anything like this before… I understood in an instant that God is my Father and I am His child… The joy, the peace, the love that I had in my heart for God and others was incredible. Never had I realized anything comparable before…”
This is the Publican’s Lent — a Lent that doesn’t try to impress God with our own spiritually disciplined efforts, but a Lent that instead sends us to our knees and that prompts us to cry out ~ “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” And if this is where the 40 days of Lent can deliver us, then come Holy Week we will be ready for the Holy Spirit’s fresh application of Christ’s objective saving work on the cross and out of the Empty Tomb.