I love Lent. And Lent gets a bad rap. It drives me nuts that we in the church can make Lent to be almost a “second wave” for our recently forgotten New Year’s Resolutions (I am guilty of this!). Simply put, New Year’s Resolutions are primarily about us; Lent is primarily about Jesus.
It also can be frustrating to me to think that we examine ourselves only in this season of Lent. My non-liturgical friends scoff when I mention Lent, reasoning that Christians ought to everyday deny-self. My reply is that we DO everyday deny ourselves to become more like Christ, just like everyday we celebrate Christ’s birth and resurrection. We have a time to celebrate those aspects of faith in seasons while not neglecting to commemorate them everyday. On Easter, we celebrate a particular aspect of the Christian faith, and although we set apart a time so that we may meditate on it, the “season” in no way negates the centrality of the resurrection outside that season. Same with Lent. The season of self-denial ought to only affirm the seriousness of introspection continually in the Christian’s life. This notion is saturated throughout Scripture- Ps. 26:2 “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind,” and Lamentations 3:40 “Let us test and examine our ways and return to the LORD” to name a few.
I recently went to a play where the message satirized the “Happily Ever After” concept perpetuated in so many fairy tales. After the play, the cast was asked to come out for some Q&A. The director asked the actors and actresses if the play taught them anything in their own life. One young man replied, “I guess what it has taught me is that we cannot look to anything outside of ourselves if we want to be truly happy.”
I desperately wanted to ask a follow up, “And what if looking inside only leaves you constantly wanting more as well?”
You see, Lent is the perfect time to take a look inside ourselves and see what is really in our hearts. And if we are honest, we shouldn’t be happy or proud of what we always see. If we look to ourselves to not let us down, we will become disappointed. 1 John 1:8 &10 say, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us….If we say we have not sinned, we make him (Jesus) a liar, and his word is not in us.” If you really want a picture of who the Bible tells us we are apart from Jesus, look at Isaiah 64:6a – “We all have become like one who is unclean and all of our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” In short, the Hebrew word for ‘polluted garment’ is ‘menstrual cloth’; I will leave you to your own conclusions so that I don’t have to turn myself into Al to be fired.
So we know if we are honest that self-introspective ought to lead to one thing – guilt. But let me ask you – is guilt always bad? Is fear and sorrow always bad? The amazing answer from God is a resounding no. In 2 Corinthians 7:9-10 Paul says, “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Guilt can be an incredible gift from God, depending on what it causes in us.
This past week in our staff meeting I was hit like a ton of bricks by the words of an all-familiar hymn. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” Do we believe that we are wretched, blind, and lost apart from Christ? “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear.” Really?! Grace taught our hearts to fear?? We sing it all the time but do we hear what this is saying? How can fear possibly come from grace and why in the world would God give us grace to fear Him? The answer gives us an insight to the good news of Jesus (and the purpose of Lent), and it also informs us into how guilt can be good.
The only way to see our sin truly as sin is by the grace of the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to just how filthy we are. The good news of Jesus giving us his perfect righteousness is only good news when held up against the black backdrop of our defilement and cosmic rebellion against God. What we do with that guilt determines whether or not guilt is good or bad. If guilt leads us to see the depths to which we are sinners and how far Jesus went to pay for our sin and in turn leads us to turn from things that lead to death, then guilt produces life in us.
“And grace my fears relieved.” That same grace that taught our hearts to fear quenches our shame. God’s grace at the same time makes us more aware of how dirty we are and how good at cleaning Jesus is. Our shame and guilt are gifts of God only to the moment we remember the cross. Any further, and our shame is no longer godly, leading to repentance, but demonic and paralyzing our lives for Christ.
The reality of Lent is that we are looking inside to find sin and realize our guilt. But this is not done masochistically, but rather hedonistically, because we treasure the gospel only to the degree to which we see our sin; Jesus’ words in Luke 7:47 echo in our hearts, “Whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” My prayer is that you join me this Lent in taking an honest look inside, so that the cross of Christ may seem more radiant and splendid to you than ever. You may find yourself basking in the joy of transferred and redeemed guilt.
~ Justin Hare