Lent is Not about Guilt, it’s about Resilience

The week before Ash Wednesday, my internal clock blasts a grating alarm, demanding that I search out something adequately worth giving up. (I wasn’t raised in a very Lent-observant family, but I always found anything self-minimizing to be impressionable.) It’s like last-minute Christmas shopping in reverse: return all the happinesses and cash in on austerity. Give up something! Lent is the season of repentance and reflection in the church calendar, but for many it’s more of a season of deprivation—giving up chocolate, alcohol, social media, meat, those small indulgences we know we “should” be moderating the rest of the year. It’s the restarting of New Year’s Resolutions with all the pep talks, guilt trips, and resignation contained in January.

And when you get to the first week of March, no one wants to repeat January.

It’s hard to see Lent as anything other than an obligatory march through human failing. It’s 40 days of cultivating feelings of guilt and self-loathing that is somehow supposed to mirror Jesus’ 40 day journey in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.

But I don’t think Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to get better at hating himself. Honing our inner Jesus by sheer force of guilt isn’t terribly effective, and in fact is probably related to why the North American church is in decline. Shoehorning yourself into a saint doesn’t work. Internalizing pressure to grow does not actually lend itself to growth.

Agony in the Garden Bellini

The Agony in the Garden, Giovanni Bellini, c. 1458. Thanks for nothing, disciples.

Nor is it terribly biblical. There’s no record of Jesus promoting self-effacing longest-sacrifice competitions (In fact, Jesus is mostly on record critiquing that sort of thing). Whenever Jesus asked the disciples to do anything, it was almost always met with resistance (“But why?”) or failure. Recall Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God won’t make a martyr of him, asking the disciples to stay awake and pray with him. And then while Jesus is praying, they fall asleep—not once, not twice, not three times. The first time, Jesus wakes them up and says, “No, you’re supposed to pray with me.” The second time, Jesus doesn’t even bother waking them up, he just goes back to his prayer. And the third time he returns, he says, “Come on guys, let’s get moving, we’ve got to go get betrayed.”

The fact that the disciples did the exact opposite of what he instructed did not change his plan. Jesus did not say, “Screw you, you guys are as bad as Judas!” and go off to get arrested on his own. Jesus committed to community even when the community was struggling. Jesus committed to the partnership they’d built and the alternative lifestyle they were creating. And Jesus was gracious with people who were trying to recalibrate their ideas of love and solidarity and hope. The community continues through human failing. The project of imagining hope continues.

This is what Lent is designed to do: nurture hopefulness in the face of dashed dreams. Recalibrate a community when it fails to catch one of its members. Lent is about more than swearing off bad habits. Lent is about cultivating resilience. Lent is the season of learning to commit and sustain love in all circumstances. It’s a season of releasing what does not serve you and practicing the habits of resilience that empower you to rebuild and participate in healthy community after a disaster or a loss.

Lent is a time of deliberately anticipating resurrection. Being attentive to the ways the world is changing for the better. Paying attention to the new life that comes with spring, the small signs of buds and salamanders and robins even though everything is still bleak and winter-streaked outside.

Lent is an invitation to fall in love with the great artwork that is Creation. That’s why many churches have shifted from the language of “giving something up” to the language of “giving up or adding in.” Giving up chocolate, alcohol, social media, or meat can be that thing that reshapes your mind toward resilience, and I recommend them as Lent practices (except chocolate; I’ve never seen giving up chocolate strengthen resilience).

This year, I want to linger with resilience. Spend time with it, invite it into my relationships, notice how it stands at the center of Jesus’ holy work. Three years ago, for Lent, I read a book of the Bible every day (if you’re in the mood for reading, I recommend it). Last year, I finished out that project by reading the rest of the books that were too short for one daily Lenten sitting (if you’re in the mood for reading and tedium, I recommend it). This year, I want to revisit the Bible as a book that teaches resilience.

This year, I’ll create a series of, for lack of a better word, devotionals. Each day, I will make a brief post on Gathering the Stones, reflecting on one attribute of resilience and one Bible verse where it’s present. I’m not sure if “not overcommitting” is an attribute of resilience, but this practice is all about simplicity: One attribute. One verse (with links back to the passage for context). Short posts, something that can be read in five minutes, and written in not much more than that. As always in my Lenten practices, Sundays are days off. Somehow I was in my late 20’s before someone told me Lent is actually 46 days if you count the Sundays, but Sundays aren’t supposed to count because they are mini-Easters. But hey, if you don’t know, now you know.

Curious? Intimidated? Me too. If creating a discipline doesn’t feel very resilient this year, there’s no need to do it. If you want to tune in and out of the posts–well, the Internet is well-designed for that. But beginning tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), you’re invited to join me for this walk in the wilderness, these 40 Days of Lenten Resilience.

Milkweed Seeds in snow

Milkweed seeds emerging during a snow.

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