It’s time for the familiar, seasonal conversation. Every year, it’s about the same, just with different combinations of children. They talk about what to give up for Lent. They weigh one thing against another, testing the viability of various options. They bounce ideas off one another, and they are honest in rejecting or applauding those ideas. One refrain always makes itself heard.
“No, I’m not going to do that. I could never stick to that for 40 days.”
“He’s right. That’s too hard. I tried it last year and couldn’t do it.”
And then it’s my turn to weigh in. If you can’t do it, if you really, really know that you can’t possibly do it, that’s exactly what you should do. Go ahead. Set yourself up for failure.
When the time comes that you falter and you stumble and you do the thing you expressly resolved not to do, you will see what it is to come to the end of yourself. You will know that you have to reach the point where you need grace, and you will beg for it.
All the tricks and tips will present themselves at the beginning of Lent. Don’t want to eat chocolate? Don’t buy it, and make sure no one brings it into the house. Want to give up coffee? Stay away from Instagram between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m. lest you be tempted by all the carefully staged photos of foamy latte art. And all the tricks will fail if you have chosen your sacrifice well. The things of the world — the tricks and the tips — will sustain you only so long. Your soul will be filled only when it is emptied of worldly tricks and tips, emptied of your own resolve and good intentions, and looks to God to fill it.
People who don’t understand Lent object by saying that we are trying to live under God’s law, that it is unnecessary to observe Lent because Jesus already has done the work of salvation on the cross. We don’t have to work out our salvation with self-imposed suffering. He’s done it all. It is finished. We are saved.
They’re right, in a way. Lent teaches us that even if we wanted to, even if we were of iron will and utter devotion, we will break God’s law. We cannot keep it perfectly. We are a people born into sin, and there is no way out without God. For 40 days, every time we bump up against the struggle of making our sacrifice well, we are reminded of death in sin, and we look with hope toward Christ, who brings light and life to the darkness. Lent is precisely about making us aware that it is Jesus Christ, crucified, who has opened the gates of heaven.
This, then, is Lent: to falter, to fail, to find Him. Choose the hard thing, the thing that brings you to your knees, the thing that reminds you to ask again and again for His mercy and His grace. Choose the thing that will empty your soul of you and fill it with God. (It’s likely that is not chocolate.) Let Lent teach you the places you will fail, the places where you are frail. Let it remind you that you are dust and to dust you will return. Let it break you and bring you down. Let it find you kneeling in the dirt — soft, yielding, fertile dirt that will bloom in time with Easter glory. Let it empty you of your weak and weary self and fill you with His strength.