A week before Ash Wednesday this year, I was preaching at a Christian high school to students who are just learning about the season of Lent. I find an excitement sharing the basics of spiritual seasons like Lent to people who are learning about the Christian calendar for the first time. As I teach others, I find myself learning the basics all over again. I discover new insights in my own life with God while I teach the basics of the liturgical year.
Take the basic framework of the Lenten season—forty days, not including Sundays, that remembers Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The basic theology here is that Jesus redeems Israel’s story and her failure to trust the faithfulness of God during her sojourn from Egypt to Canaan. Where Israel rebels, Jesus obeys. When Israel pines for Egyptian slavery again, Jesus abides in the Father. When Israel molds and worships a golden calf, Jesus refuses to bend the knee to Satan. At every stage of Jesus’ wilderness testing, he proves himself faithful to the Father. This is the essential story that frames the whole season of Lent.
I described that basic Lenten framework and added the notion that the Jesus story is meant to shape my own story. Because I’m called to grow in the likeness of Christ, I’m also called to practice obedience with my whole self—body, mind, and soul. The forty days of Lent are given to awaken me to that calling.
And yet I’m naive and foolish if I think that I’ll be able to perfectly obey the Father for forty days as Jesus did in the wilderness. Forget forty days—I’m not capable of living one day of total repentance and perfect obedience. I desire the perfect obedience of Jesus in my life, but I’m not capable of achieving that measure of faithfulness in my own strength.
As I shared this basic framework for Lent, I saw a new dimension of the Lenten experience. I need a lifetime of Lenten seasons to learn full obedience to Jesus. There can be an implicit pressure at the beginning of Lent to ‘get everything in your spiritual house in order.’ Ash Wednesday is a great wake-up call for the places where I’ve been negligent in my life with God. But Lent is not a spiritual crash diet. It’s impossible to get everything in order in my heart over one Lenten season. I don’t need one Lenten season. I need decades of Lenten seasons to train me in Christlikeness. Lent trains me in a humility and patience that the Way of the Cross is a lifetime journey, not a temporary trek for 40 days.
Because my calling to Jesus lasts a lifetime, I need to think about growth in repentance over many years, not just one Lenten season. As Eugene Peterson said, we are called to practice ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ As I practice repentance—the turning of my whole self to God—it’s obvious I will need a lifetime of Lenten seasons to mature into the likeness of Christ.
I would love to take on a more rigorous fast, to devote myself to prayer in a more pure and intensive way. But I don’t mature in body, mind, and soul all at once. I grow my degrees. Change happens slowly. As Soren Kierkegaard said, ‘One should be able to tell the age of a tree from its bark; in truth one can also tell a man’s age by the intensity of his repentance.’
But the intensity of faithful repentance grows over years, not days. It’s taken me several years to adjust my expectations for this pace of growth. My projections for growth usually outstrip my own capacity for endurance. In the past, I’ve not been honest with my limitations and my lack of spiritual strength. It’s like trying to resume weight training after a decade away from the gym. Don’t try to benchpress 250 lbs. on the first lift without a spotter, or you’re likely to crack your sternum. Better to work with lighter weights and build strength more slowly rather than being sidelined from discouragement or injury.
While Lent trains me in an acute attention to repentance, it also trains me in a long obedience of turning my whole self to God. Practicing the spiritual disciplines of prayer, repentance, and fasting during Lent trains us for faithful obedience the rest of the year. Lent is a catalyst for faithfulness along the Way of the Cross the whole year round. To repent, fast, and pray for only 40 days out of 365 isn’t very substantial. In fact, if we never practice self-denial the other 325 days of the year, our faith will become fragmented from the rest of our lives. Forty days isn’t sufficient to free us from self-absorption.
And yet, even if I commit myself to repentance beyond Lent, practicing self-denial will not be an achievement of my own penitent works, lest anyone boast. Unless the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit accompany my spiritual disciplines, all my spiritual labor would be in vain. Practicing spiritual disciplines is my response of obedience; spiritual growth is the work of the Holy Spirit, not my own.
And here is one of the best graces the Spirit gives in this long obedience: the Church. I don’t practice repentance in isolation. Practicing a long obedience in a Lenten direction happens in community. I won’t arrive at the end of this journey by myself. When I assume new disciplines in my own strength, I have underwhelming to moderate growth. When I practice new disciplines in community with others, we grow much more together.
And isn’t this Paul’s vision of the Church? No single individual matures into Christ, the Head of the Body, by himself. The Church’s calling is to:
[build] up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. Ephesians 4.12-15
As we complete this Lenten season, remember the Lenten journey lasts many years. But also remember where the Lenten journey ends. At the end of our journey we behold the resurrected Christ, the firstborn of the dead, who transfigures many sons and daughters into the fullness of his resurrection life.