Prayer. Fasting. Giving. Do these traditional actions of Lent make a difference? Are they more than a personal improvement project, or even a way to prepare our hearts for Easter? How can Lent inspire us to love God and our local and global neighbors better? I’d like to explore these questions and invite others to contribute their own answers as well.
Prayer gets a bad rap for being impractical. For years after my conversion, I didn’t spend much time praying, thinking that, as it says in the book of James, it’s hypocritical to pray for someone unless you are also working to provide for their needs. Years later, I have come to realize the place that prayer has in preparing me for good works. I believe, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, that my noblest actions are worthless without love. And how do I get more love? By connecting with the very Source of love in prayer.
Also, for me, prayer has become an important way of opening my eyes to the world around me. I can pray not only for my family, for my neighbors, but for friends (and strangers) all around the globe. Prayer helps me remember that we are all family, challenges me to keep in mind the joys and sorrows of the whole world. It invites me to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. It invites me to care more deeply about my neighbors and let my caring move me to action.
Likewise, fasting may not seem to make much of a difference on a physical, practical level. However, we can be very practical about it and fast from habits or pleasures we have that can be expensive, like cable or fancy coffee. If we then share the money we save with those to whom it means not just pleasure but sustenance, it can be an excellent spiritual discipline (if it’s done with love, see section above on prayer). Certainly, there is a time and place for celebration, for extravagance; not every luxury can or should be cut from our lives. On the other hand, many of us could live with less. I know I could. Lent is an opportunity to rethink how we spend our time and money and, if necessary, to do some creative redistribution.
Fasting is also yet another way to train oneself toward compassion. I have far to go in this area: if I’m feeling any physical discomfort, I want to escape it or I feel like I deserve to vent. Yet the Greek word for “to feel compassion,” splagchnizomai, literally means to have one’s insides twist. When the Bible says, “Jesus looked at the crowd and was filled with compassion,” it means Jesus felt their pain in his own gut, that’s how much he cared about them. Through fasting, if I fully embrace it, I can teach myself what compassion feels like in my body, what hunger and thirst for righteousness really mean.
Giving is another discipline that allows us to re-examine our lives in the season of Lent and beyond. Most people I know don’t feel like they have enough money, no matter how much or how little they make. And yet, in a global sense, almost everyone I know is rich. Although my wages are well below the American average, I am objectively rich. Unlike many people on our planet, I have never worried about my next meal. I have never had the need for clean water rule my life. I have never been without shelter. I am literate, even college educated. With such advantages, how can I not seek out ways to share them with the many others who lack them?
As the Good Book has it, the greatest act of love is to lay down one’s life for a friend. But I think we need to ask ourselves, we Christians who live in affluence, as Lent draws to a close: One of my current pastors started his first sermon of Lent a few years back with the quote, “Lent is a time to do more joyfully what we should be doing all the time.” Can we lay down our lifestyles, a little bit more each season, for the sake of our brothers and sisters who fight for survival? What can we carry with us, joyfully, from this season into Easter?
Maybe we won’t practice these disciplines quite as strenuously during the rest of the year as we do during Lent, but we will take small steps that seem right to us. Maybe we will feel called to continue what we’ve been doing during Lent and raise the bar for next year. Whatever the case, doing it joyfully is the key. Reflection on what Lent means for our whole lives is a great way to begin, and to end, the Lenten season.
What are your thoughts on how we can joyfully live out the lessons of Lent all year round?