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So, instead of the small thing helping me become faithful in the big thing, it just makes me focus more and more on the small thing. Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways. I believe, but O Lord, help the enormity of my unbelief.

To be sure, I have known a few Lenten successes. My wife and kids and I gave up TV one Lent and made a surprising discovery: We didn't like TV all that much. From that Lent forward, there were very few times when my wife and I had to discipline anyone to stop watching too much TV.  

But that exception proves the rule. The other times I have successfully fasted or made strides in serving my wife, for example, I became quite proud of my improvement. My right hand definitely knew what my left hand was doing. In short, what my Lenten successes have done more than anything else is inculcate pride and self-righteousness. Spiritually speaking, that's one step forward and two steps back.

So Lent for me has generally done just the opposite of what it's supposed to do. It's made me more aware of my sinfulness, selfishness, and lack of faith. It's made me a worse Christian in some ways.

And this may suggest the real point of Lent.

Thank God, Easter Is Coming!

I grant that there are superstar Christians whose motives during and after Lent are more purely God-driven. And I ask for their prayers. But I suspect that most Christians are like me, and being inveterately selfish people, we naturally try to turn Lent into an exercise of self-improvement, though we do give God a supporting role. But why bother with God at all if mere self-improvement is the goal? There are plenty of helpful self-improvement programs out there—to help us lose weight, to help us organize our schedules, to help us have better sex, and so on and so forth. Most never enlist God's help, and I don't have a problem with that. I take it that God planned it this way. Maybe he's saying, "Hey, when it comes to small things like this, I've given you sufficient abilities to manage your lives on your own. Why are you bothering me about this?" In short, I don't believe we need Lent or God to improve ourselves in these small matters.

But we need Lent and God if we're going to get saved.

Here's the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can't do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don't come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let's see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we're so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you'd think we'd want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don't want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It's the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.

SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent