Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. Historically, it was used as the final time of fasting and preparation for baptism by new converts to Christianity. Many of these new believers had been in catechism (instruction and preparation for new Christians) for one to three years! Their preparation climaxed in the Saturday night prayer vigil and the baptismal service just before dawn, and the new Christians would join the rest of the church for the service just in time to throw open the doors and let the first light of day flood in as they proclaimed “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”
Today many Christians engage with Lent by fasting from certain things like foods or activities, or by adding new disciplines such as silence or solitude into their routine. This is done to help us enter once again a time of preparation to enter into the story of Christ’s suffering and death, to renew our baptismal vows and to hear once again the glorious news that he is risen.
This Lent sort of crept up on me. I think it was a day or two before Ash Wednesday when I realized Lent was about to start and I had no idea what discipline I would engage in. I think that most of the time as Christians we hesitate to engage with spiritual disciplines because we are waiting for some sort of extra…something to tell us what to do. If we are honest we will probably only fast if we feel a strong sense that we are supposed to fast, that there is something we need to get out of it. Well, I didn’t have any sense of what I was supposed to do during Lent so I almost did nothing. But, at the last minute, I decided to take a lenten sabbath (take a break) from social media. Seemed easy enough. Shut off the notifications for Twitter and Instagram and away you go.
Like I said, this wasn’t the result of some strong conviction that I was being ruled by social media (although most of us are probably more ruled by it than we think). This was just a discipline that I (somewhat randomly) decided to engage with. You know what I found? The results have impacted me dramatically, just as much as if I had been told by thunder in the sky to get off social media. (This is an important lesson. The disciplines are their for us to engage with and gain from. They are opportunities that we can take advantage of. If we don’t choose to engage, we don’t get the benefits. But that’s another post.)
The thing about social media is that it is often self-promotion. We say to the world, “Look at my witty 140-character statement about so-and-so” or “Look at my food I’m about to eat” (side note: next time you go to a restaurant look around at how many people take pictures of their food when it arrives. It’s shocking.). Basically the message is, “Look at ME! Notice ME! Affirm (or “Like”) ME!”
You would think that giving this up would be a healthy way to notice myself less. But you know what I found? I noticed myself more, but not in the ways I expected. See, social media kept me distracted with little surface things like the sunsets I saw or the sound bites from my books. It never allowed me to see the depth of my real obsession with self. When you remove your options to self-promote (or read/see other people self-promoting), you start to realize the problem is actually deeper than you think.
Our problem is not that we are obsessed with instant photo filters or status updates, our problem is that our sinful hearts are backwards. We are hard-wired to put self and its needs right at the top of our priority list. Even though as Christians we have a new heart, I find that old habits die hard. It’s a constant battle to live into the change that God has already accomplished in me. To take my heart problem a step further, I will often use God as a means to glorify self. This is seen most clearly in prayer, as Tim Keller recently helped me see in his book on prayer. We pray most often when we are in trouble and when we want stuff. What is clear from this is that we are —I am, bought into the lie that if we had things we would be happy, or that if we were just out of this little mess we would be satisfied.
But isn’t it obvious that it doesn’t work? I wish my heart would see that it is. God in his gracious love so often will give me the things I ask for or help me out of the problem I have. No sooner does that happen than I find another thing to ask for or another problem that needs fixing. And on and on it goes. This Lent I have realized once again that what I need is to draw near to God himself, because it is only God himself that will satisfy my longing soul (Ps. 107:9). When I try to get away from myself, I run right into the depth of my own problem. I run into myself.
The glorious news of Lent is that Easter is coming, that Jesus has come. It is never fun to see yourself, especially when you realize that you are your biggest problem. But Jesus showed us that the way to life is through death. When Jesus shows me that I have made myself lord, I see quickly that I need his help to die to self. I need him to be Lord —in fact he must be Lord of all of me. It’s not pleasant, but it’s absolutely essential.
So regardless of if you have engaged in any “serious” lenten disciplines, draw near to God this Holy Week. Remember once again the vastness of Christ’s work to bring life out of death. I promise you that drawing near to God will be ugly at first. Not because God is ugly but because ugliness stands out in the presence of beauty. God’s perfection will always first make us see our flaws. But don’t give up. God has made a way for you and for me to stand in his presence with perfection. Jesus not only makes us perfect in God’s eyes, but his power changes us from the inside out to be what he has made us to be: imitators of Christ, who is the Lord of all.