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From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
I am a failure when it comes to spiritual disciplines. I don’t rise before dawn to pray on my knees, or fast regularly, or do daily devotional readings and journal in conversation with the Scriptures. Nope. I don’t do any of that. I’d like to be that kind of woman, but I am not. (Nor do I bake bread, practice yoga, welcome new folks to my neighborhood, or do any of the myriad other things that my idealized vision of myself “does.”)
Instead, I pray when it occurs to me to pray, usually when weeding, which is not very often, or when feeling desperate, which is decidedly more often. I never miss a meal—although I am deeply grateful for every bite that enters my mouth. I catch Scripture on the fly, snatching it out of a good sermon or song or when I need to look something up to make a point or to encourage someone.
So when it comes to Lent—in fact to the whole Easter Season—although my heart has always warmed at the thought and my intention was almost always to “do” Lent, I have failed. Every time.
Lent, we are told, is a season of prayer, fasting, and giving, a time for personal reflection meant to prepare our hearts and minds for Good Friday and Easter. But for these 40 days, I neither pray more often nor more passionately; I neither sacrifice any food or habit nor give more to charity than the rest of the year.
The problem with my (albeit failed) attempts to practice Lent was that they all ended up being performative. For the first few days (OK, 24 hours), when I was doing well, I was proud of myself, and had a hard time resisting the urge to tell both God and those around me how well I was doing it. Who was I trying to impress? God, myself, others—anyone who was willing to watch. And that was not quite conducive to preparing my heart and mind for the redemptive suffering of Holy Week. So I stopped even trying to try. But this year, God apparently had other plans for me.
On a walk the other day, the Holy Spirit suggested to me that the best preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus—at least for this Lent-resistant woman—would be to open myself up to the red-hot crucible of God’s grace. Given my natural state of pride, that is exactly as painful as it sounds.
So that this wouldn’t be a completely abstract practice, God exposed my need for grace by enlisting a lovely young man to point out to me that I had broken his trust, in a pretty egregious way. There is so much pain in the world without my aiding and abetting, so discovering that I had caused pain to a person I greatly admire and care about threw me into a tailspin. Even as I tried to justify myself in my mind, I could see that self-justification was precisely what had led me to this relational transgression in the first place.
Could I make it right? Not really. The damage was done. There was only one thing to do—beg this young man’s forgiveness. “Trust is the only currency I have,” I told him. “And I have broken yours. Can you forgive me?”
His answer was straight out of Jesus’ playbook: “Of course I forgive you. But the trust may take some time to repair. I’m sure you can understand.”
I did, and I do, indeed understand.
I am claiming this painful experience as my Lenten practice this year, because it is the opposite of performance. I can do nothing but receive both this young man’s unearned grace and Christ’s outrageous gift at the Cross. I can’t do anything other than expose my naked heart to the scorching fire of grace. Given my natural state of pride, this is extremely difficult for me, because it exposes a whole host of lies that I somehow manage to live quite comfortably with, but which need—like my own sin—to be exposed, forgiven, and (hopefully) put to rest:
- I’m a pretty good person.
- I’m a trustworthy person.
- I possess self-control.
- I don’t cause God much trouble.
- God needs me to get stuff done (that’s why I don’t have more time for prayer, fasting, etc).
The approximate opposite of these lies are also lies:
- I’m a worm.
- I’m an untrustworthy person.
- I have no self-control.
- I make God’s job difficult.
- God doesn’t care about partnering with and through me to do shalom work in the world.
All of these are lies because they’re about me, when in fact the focus should always be on Jesus, because Jesus is the center of everything, the be-all and end-all. That doesn’t mean I’m not a player here, but it does mean that I can’t see myself with any accuracy unless through the loving eyes and work of Jesus.
Jesus is the one doing all the work here. I live in a state of perpetual grace (whether I acknowledge it or not). When I pretend that I can earn God’s love—whether by “doing Lent” well or by being a good girl—I show how little I get the whole point of the gospel, the whole point of Good Friday and Easter. Ditto if I pretend that I’m a useless piece of dust (Jesus doesn’t endure the crucifixion for dust). The point is I’m not. I can’t. I don’t. He is and can and does. That’s grace.
I cannot escape God’s grace, try as I might.
One of the greatest scenes in literature is found in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The recently released convict Jean Valjean steals silver place settings from a bishop who has generously given him a meal and a bed for the night. The police catch him and haul him back to the bishop’s house, mocking Valjean’s claims that the bishop gave him the silver. Instead of thanking the police for apprehending the thief, the bishop scolds Valjean for “forgetting” to take the silver candlesticks as well!
Like Valjean, I am forced to look my victim in the face, forced to see the searing look of love and mercy in his eyes, to receive the refining fire of his grace-filled words: “You no longer belong to evil. I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.”
May our outrageously gracious Savior reveal to you what Lent might look like for you this year.
Kristyn Komarnicki is director of dialogue and convening at Christians for Social Action.