Americans are rarely a self-reflective people. We have eyes only for result and effect, caring little for process and cause. We seek to assign blame, caring little for our own culpability. We repeat the mistakes of the past, caring little for the lessons those mistakes teach. Never look back. Never let ‘em see you bleed. Never stop to think or the world will pass you by.
Living in this results-driven world is, at the same time, both exceedingly difficult and quite easy. It’s difficult because true joy, the fuel for any fruitful life, is a scarce commodity. Joy happens during not after, and in a results-oriented society, the during is dismissed as superfluous. But this dismissal is why the results-driven life is also quite easy. You crop half of life away. The journey becomes unimportant: only the destination matters. How easy would a test be if you only had to score a 50% to pass?
Self-reflection makes life hard, but it also allows us to recognize that joy abounds, poised to infuse our lives with meaning. Because we are such poor practitioners of self-reflection and because our culture tells us not to take time for such a revealingly honest enterprise, we need a swift kick in the trousers to boot us from the grasping current of the results-driven half-life.
In the Church, this swift-kick-in-the-trousers is called the season of Lent. “Lent” is an old translation of the Latin word quadragesima, which simply means “forty days.” Forty days is a significant period of time in the Bible: Noah, Moses, and Elijah all had forty days of something –flooding, fasting, sitting around with God on the mountaintop. Jesus spent forty days in the desert, during which Satan tempted him. Begun this year on February 25 (on the fast the church names “Ash Wednesday”) Lent continues until the day before Easter. Historically, the season of Lent was the period of time that people used to prepare for baptism, which took place at the Great Vigil of Easter on Easter Eve.
During these forty days that bring us to Easter, we examine our lives and discern how attuned to God’s movement we are. We pray for God to create in us clean hearts and renew right spirits within us, as Psalm 51 says. We rededicate ourselves to following Christ and wonder how last year’s dedication faded away. We slow down and turn our thoughts inward. How have my actions and inactions contributed to the brokenness in the world? To what have I enslaved myself? Where is my joy and freedom? Do I really want to follow Christ?
When we enter this period of self-reflection, when we honestly answer questions such as these, it often becomes apparent just how skin deep and results-oriented we’ve become. The season of Lent helps us see the error in statements such as “It’s only cheating if you get caught” and “The ends justify the means.” Living a full life – not a half-life of results only – means valuing the moral fortitude that counters wanton opportunism and caring about how things are accomplished, not just that they are. Observing Lent means taking a hard look at ourselves and borrowing enough strength from God to be capable of seeing those festering things that we usually ignore. Then we borrow enough faith from God to know that God will help us change and will reawaken within us those faculties of hope and love that have long lay dormant.
I invite you to turn your gaze inward during this season of Lent and discover the true joy that comes from a full life lived in the love of God.
* This post began its life as an article in my local newspaper.