Growing up in non-denominational Christian churches, we barely even talked about Lent, much less observed it. Lent was for Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and various ‘others,’ but not for us. We didn’t have anything against it; we were just more focused on telling people about Jesus in a way that was attractive to people who were turned off by ‘high church’ traditions.
But lately I’ve been reading some stuff by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch catholic priest who wrote absolutely beautiful things about love, grace, God, community, etc. One thing in particular jumped out at me a few weeks ago – a passage about Lent, guilt, and which way our focus turns.
Nouwen contrasts Judas and Peter – two disciples of Jesus who both betrayed him in his final hours. The difference lies in which way their focus turned afterwards. Judas’ guilt spiraled in on himself, leading him to despair and ultimately his death (presumably apart from God, regardless of which death narrative you hold to). On the other hand, Peter’s guilt led him to refocus outward, towards Jesus, and not on his own sinfulness. As a result, he was forgiven, restored, purified. These two clearly illustrate the truth of 2 Corinthians 7:10, which says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
Then today I was reading in James 4, and ran across another passage that led my thoughts once again back to Lent and the frame of mind I believe Lenten observers should strive for.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
– James 4:7-10
It’s the last sentence that really sets it off for me, for two reasons. First off, the repentance, forgiveness-seeking, and purification that go on during Lent should always be about our relationship with God, and not about fulfilling an obligation, obeying a tradition, or seeking approval from people. Secondly, I believe the purpose of Lent is to voluntarily go through a little bit of discomfort, to deny and humble ourselves before God, so that we can fully experience the joy that comes through the resurrection of Jesus. Like Jesus, who “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…, and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death…,” we need to go through our own time of humility and obedience to death in order to fully identify with the victory over death.
It’s a beautiful, difficult truth, I think…