Lent is a time of vulnerability. On Wednesday, during the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we acknowledged our weakness and our need for God. We plunged ourselves into a time of reflection on the self. We opened our hearts and confessed that we have made an absolute mess of things. And then we entered the metaphorical desert for a time of fasting and penitence.
We are invited to keep a Holy Lent … to be transformed … we give things up … we take up new practices. Then what happens on Easter Day? We realise we’ve maybe lost a few pounds, we’ve picked up a new habit of praying while we eat lunch or we’ve got another read book on our shelves. How many of us are truly transformed? How many of us feel that we have gained any lasting benefits from not eating chocolate or drinking coffee for a few weeks? Now, trust me, I’m not knocking giving up biscuits. For a start, that means there’ll be more for me at coffee after the service. And it can never be a bad thing to take more care of our bodies. But I do wonder if that is really buying into the spirit of Lent. I think it really depends on why we are doing it.
What is Lent really about? What is it about resisting temptation that is holy?
Is resisting temptation really the discipline … the spiritual exercise … or is it the outcome?
To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at what is happening in the Gospel reading. Jesus has just been baptised. We’ve had that wonderful scene where the Holy Spirit descends and the Father’s voice is heard declaring that he is His Son. And then Jesus goes off into the desert and fasts for 40 days and nights.
BUT the fasting isn’t the same as the temptations. The temptations come AFTER the fast. And that is significant.
When Jesus is tempted by Satan he is tempted to rely on his powers to achieve his ends. He is tempted to turn stones into bread – to provide for his physical needs.
He is tempted to prove who he is, and so gather followers quickly, by God saving him in a crowded place.
And he is tempted to achieve recognition as the world’s ruler by being handed that role as part of a contract.
And he says no to all those things.
To each temptation Jesus replies that God is stronger. Yes, he could turn stones into bread, but he would remain hungry for the truth. Yes, he could gain fans by putting on big shows, but he needed disciples, not a fan club. Yes, he could force dominion, but God’s kingdom is one where it is necessary for us to come under his rulership willingly and through love.
It is in the 40 days in the wilderness that Jesus has prepared for these things. It is in this time that he has reflected upon who he is and what his relationship is to God.
It is in the 40 days that Jesus is strengthened, by that reflection, to be able to withstand the temptations that follow.
In Lent we are invited into the wilderness. We are invited to reflect upon who we are, what our relationship is with God, and how we can take our part in furthering His mission. It is a time for understanding our reliance upon God. Like Adam and Eve, we become aware of our vulnerability and our failings. It’s a time to hide. It’s a time to heal.
What are we trying to prove, and who are we trying to prove it to, when we use Lent to resist temptations? Trust me, there are plenty of temptations in life without us manufacturing more.
And every time we fail to resist those things we have given up for Lent we feel guilt – we plunge ourselves into negative emotions and thoughts about ourselves. How can we stand strong when we are the ones knocking ourselves down?
I challenge you to a different Lent. I challenge you to use this Lent to be kind to yourself. Use it as a time to reflect on who you are. Spend time with God in prayer. Listen to the small voice of your heart which confirms that He is pleased with you. Read what builds you up. Recognise Christ in yourself. Learn who you are so deeply, that you don’t need to prove it.
The point of Lent is not to suffer, but to fill us with the resources to take up the cross of Christian life when we, with Christ, rise on Easter Day ready to take on the world. We may not be lighter. But we will certainly be stronger!