Updated on March 2, 2017
Giving it all up for Lent?
Nutella, homework, water, long pants, broccoli; just a few of the “what I’m giving up for Lent” suggestions that my boys have been tossing around lately. You can see that we are clearly making an impact with our religious teaching over here … such sacrifice. It sure will be tough giving up broccoli for Lent!
Don’t get the wrong idea, we don’t insist that they give anything up for Lent. But every year as this season rolls around we have this discussion. Lent is a tough one to help them understand, and I struggle with how to make it meaningful. There is something holy and sacred about these 40 days that walk us toward Easter and the celebration of resurrection. I want them to feel it too.
” But why? If God loves us why do we have to give up good stuff to make him happy? He would probably be fine with broccoli. I bet he even likes it,” the little one protests as I try to explain that if we give something up it needs to be something of value.
Yeah. Leave it to the seven year old to see through my fancy language and tell it like it is.
And if I am being honest, giving stuff up for Lent has always been a struggle for me. One year in college I gave up bread right as homemade biscuits were added to the menu at the sorority house. The smell of baking biscuits wafting through the house every night did not draw me closer to Jesus.
And then there was the year I attempted to give up coffee. What!? No one felt the love of Jesus from that exercise, especially not my poor 7th grade students.
And maybe you’ve done it too, tried to give something up and then failed? Or maybe you’re awesome at it, but you wonder if it matters.
What does God want from us this time of year?
How do we walk through this 40 day season of preparation for Easter and see Jesus instead of just lamenting or rejoicing over our own ability to persevere?
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
God doesn’t want our broccoli, our coffee or even our chocolate. He doesn’t delight in watching us suffer through a season of doing without. And he isn’t impressed if we do manage to succeed in our 40 day quest. I think that he wants something more. I think he wants us to run smack into the reality that we are needy.
We need things; often the wrong things. We need control, comfort, assurance, and clarity; not to mention chocolate, caffeine and biscuits. We need to see the future before we will trust and be reassured of our own ability to walk on water before we will leap out of the boat.
“O, Lord, the house of my soul is narrow: enlarge it that you may enter in.” writes St. Augustine of Hippo in one of his confessional prayers. I read it three times when I stumble upon it in a book because I know how it is true. A narrow soul allows no room for a God as big as ours.
Perhaps this season is about growing our souls; about seeing the holes in them that can’t be filled with anything on this earth. No amount of chocolate, coffee or any other vice is ever going to work.
God wants for us to grasp this: we need a Savior.
But maybe you are like me, hard wired to try and do life on your own? Is surrendering control of your decisions, your kids, your marriage to a God you can’t see and touch harder than going without coffee for a few weeks? Yeah. Me too. So we need a way to make it real and tangible.
Tonight we will celebrate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of this Lenten season. Like millions across the world, as evening shadows fall, we will gather in our little suburban church on the corner and stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow believers. Our foreheads will be marked with ashen crosses as we hit pause on crazy schedules and remember the price that God paid for us.
And we will sing.
Depth of Mercy can there be, mercy still reserved for me? Can my God his wrath forbear, me the chief of sinners spare?
It’s an old hymn that finds its way into my heart every time we sing it. Because, yeah. This is how our souls will grow. This is what I need.
I need to know that I am not good at any of this. I can’t give up stuff. I can’t hand over things I love. I want the wrong things and do the wrong things.
And yet … and yet.
The ashes mark my forehead. God sent his son to die for me.
For me? Jesus died on a cross not for a cause or for a purpose. He died for me. He died for you.
For the love of us he stands and shows his scars and bears our sins before God. Because he is good. Because he desires mercy not sacrifice. And the depth of his mercy is deeper than we can fathom.
What God really wants us to give up for Lent is our belief that we’ve got this.
He wants us to surrender to him and let him save us. He wants us to give it all up.
So, however you choose to mark these days, may it enlarge your soul and may God fill in the space with his mercy and his unending love.
“Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” (Joel 2:13)