Why do we give things up or take things on during the season of Lent? It is certainly not something that Jesus’ first followers did. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted forty hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending forty days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later in Christian history. So why did Christians begin observing this tradition of 40 days of spiritual discipline?
Well, the very first Christians believed that the world was going to end and Jesus was going to return in their lifetimes. You can see this theme running throughout Paul’s letters and the gospels. But it didn’t take too many years for the followers of Christ to figure out that the world wasn’t going to end. It was easy for Christians to have a great passionate devotion to God and Jesus when it seemed that the end was just around the corner, but it got harder when life just continued on as usual. They still had to earn a living. They still had to provide food, clothing and shelter for their families. They still had to struggle with the day to day challenges of being human and mortal.
So little by little, Christians became devoted to their own comforts instead—a comfortable bed, stylish clothing, a good meal. These things made them feel safe and cared for—if not by God, then at least by themselves. They decided that there was no contradiction between being comfortable and being Christian, and very soon it was very hard to pick them out from the population at large. They no longer distinguished themselves by their bold love for one another. They blended in. They avoided extremes. They decided to be nice instead of holy. And this trend only grew worse when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
But God is good to us, and in every generation God sends us people to remind us that we are supposed to stand out in the world. People should be able to easily identify us as Christians by what we do and how we behave. And some of these God-sent people noticed how comfortable and invisible Christians had become and looked for a way to bring Christians back to their senses, back to being the visible, stand-out people we are called to be.
These people noticed that Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness learning how to trust God. Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness before hearing the still, small voice of God on the same mountain where Moses spent forty days listening to God give the law. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness—a period of preparation between his baptism and his ministry—during which he was sorely tested by the devil. He proved to us that it is humanly possible to remain faithful to God.
So the season of Lent was created. Forty days to cleanse the soul and open our eyes to what remains when our comforts are gone. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves. I once heard a preacher refer to Lent as an Outward Bound for the soul. Like outward bound, it is an opportunity to give up the illusion that you are in control of your life. Every outward bound experience has a test in the midst of it when each participant “goes solo.” You are put out in the wilderness all by yourself for twenty-four hours. That is when you find out who you are. That is when you find out what you really miss and what you really fear. One friend of mine who has been through this experience said that she spent most of her time dreaming of eating prime rib. It is different for every person, but what is the same is that everyone who “goes solo” learns exactly what their pacifiers are—the habits, substances, or surroundings they use to comfort themselves, to block out the pain and fear that are normal parts of being human.
When our pacifiers are taken away we are suddenly exposed. It is hard. It is awful. I can remember one Lent when I gave up all desserts, I dreamt almost every night of luscious, decadent, obscenely sweet desserts. I couldn’t even shut my brain off when I was sleeping. I believe that just about every human being is addicted to something, especially if you define addiction as anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone. And anything can be an addiction—alcohol, drugs, shopping, blaming, eating, TV, our cell phones, texting, the internet, taking care of other people—you name it, if you can use it to fill that space in you that is meant for God then it can be an addiction.
The Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed 2000 years ago, had deep inside it a space called the holy of holies. This was thought to be the place where God resided. It was an empty space. It was not filled with anything. Well, that space, the holy of holies resides in each and every one of us. Each and every one of us has a holy of holies within us, a place where God resides. Nothing on earth can fill it up, only God can fill it up, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers into our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole.
So, if you are considering giving something up for Lent, I have some suggestions for you. First, remember that Lent isn’t a self-improvement program. It isn’t the time when you get your body ready for swimsuit season. It is a time when we work on relationship with God. Second, there isn’t anything magical about what you give up. Actually, the particular thing that you give up isn’t particularly important, as long as it is something that you would normally use to fill the space that is meant for God.
What is important is the inner work you do around giving this thing up. Pay attention to how often your mind travels in that direction. Ask yourself why it happens when it happens. What is going on when you turn to that thing you gave up? What are you feeling? Try sitting with the feelings rather than avoiding them and see what you find out. It probably won’t feel very good at first. You will probably feel a great deal of anxiety and panic. “If you don’t have that thing you gave up right now you’ll go nuts.” Next you will probably find yourself turning to denial. That candy bar or whatever it is that you gave up is not really a pacifier, I’m not really using it to fill the space that was meant for God. And finally you will find yourself thinking, “If God really loves me, then I can do whatever I want. God will forgive me anyhow. Why waste my time on this dumb exercise?”
This is true. God will love you, whether you take on a discipline or not this Lenten season. God will love you if you take on a discipline and are not able to keep it. God will love you no matter what. And that is exactly why each and every one of us should be working on getting rid of the things we use to fill us up. Because God does love us, and it is that love and only that love which will bring us the true comfort and peace that we crave. God’s love is the only thing that will bring us the peace that passes all understanding. May you have a holy Lent in which you discover the holy of holies that is within you. Amen.