Penitence? No thanks!

By Jim Vitale

What is the point of Lent?

This is a question I come back to year after year. Why do we observe this dour season of reflection? So this year I did some research.

Lent has been around almost as long as Christianity itself. Early on, people who desired baptism into the Christian faith were required to fast for a few days beforehand. Eventually, sometime around the year 400, most of the church began observing a forty-day fast leading up to the celebration of Easter. The reason for the forty days comes from Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness. And the purpose of Lent, one article said, has always been a time of “self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter.” In the earliest days, it was a true fast: eating only once-a-day. But over time, the meaning has changed toward general self-denial. Most people decide to give up chocolate and call it good. But could there be more to it?

I’ll be honest: the word “penitence” really bums be out. It makes me think of that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the monks are smacking themselves in the face with boards. It doesn’t inspire me.

I wonder if there is a better way to understand penitence or “self-denial.” When we fast during Lent, we don’t do it to torture ourselves like those monks in the movie. We don’t do it punish ourselves for all the bad stuff we’ve done. We don’t do it because God likes it when we suffer or because God hates fun. So then why do we do it?

In Matthew 16:24-26 Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” These words, to me, embody the spirit of Lent. The self-denial of this season is all about discipleship—following Jesus. And the only way to follow Jesus is with a cross upon our shoulders.

The cross is the symbol of death. It is the way in which Jesus was executed. When Jesus says that we must be willing to take up our cross, he is saying that we must be willing to be put to death. Now, I don’t mean that literally. I simply mean that we must be willing to put our selfishness to death, our pride, our sinfulness, anything that keeps us from loving God and our neighbor.

Martin Luther says that in baptism the sinful person is daily killed and a righteous person is raised to new life within us. When we take up our crosses, we allow the sinful parts of ourselves to die so that something new and holy can rise up. The self-denial of Lent is actually an affirmation of the goodness of life. We put to death all the stuff that separates us from God so that we can have a new, richer life in God.

One of the best ways we can take up our cross and follow Jesus, then, is through spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are habits specifically designed to take the focus off ourselves and focus us instead upon God and our neighbors. For that reason, spiritual practices are not easy. They can be uncomfortable. But death is not easy; death is uncomfortable. The discomfort you feel when you take on a spiritual practice is actually the feeling of dying to yourself. When you adopt a practice, you “kill” your selfishness and bring to life a more God-centered person. Spiritual practices help us become better disciples of Jesus.

During this season of Lent, I encourage you to take on a practice. If you’re not sure what to do, Here’s a handy little list of ideas. The disciplines in that link come from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and are divided into two groups: practices of abstinence and practices of engagement. Practices of abstinence are simply practices in which you give something up, like fasting, silence, or frugality. Practices of engagement are simply practices in which you take something on, like study, prayer, or service.

Each of these practices is designed to challenge you, so don’t pick one just because you think it will be easy! For instance, if you are a workaholic, choose rest as your practice. If you like to boast about yourself, pick secrecy. If you are a compulsive shopper, pick frugality. If you are a pessimist, pick gratitude. Of course, don’t torture yourself, but strive for something challenging.

And here’s the honest truth: no matter what practice you pick, at some point, you will fail at it. And hear me when I say: that’s okay! Although Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, he knows we cannot carry that burden ourselves. You are not saved by these spiritual practices; you are saved by God’s grace alone. So when and if you fail, don’t be ashamed. Trust in God’s grace. A key point of these practices is to remind ourselves of our dependence upon God—nothing teaches us that lesson better than failure!

Christ calls us to discipleship. He calls us to follow him. That road is hard and it leads to death. But know that there is life on the other side. So on this Ash Wednesday, may you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.

Amen.