I have never successfully completed Lent.
Usually I commit to walking away from social media for 40 days for Lent. I post a “goodbye for now” message, log out of Facebook and Twitter, and delete the apps from my phone. I settle in for several weeks of quiet and an escape from national turmoil — and, of course, start planning my return message, where I’ll talk about how beneficial this all was and how everyone should consider a social media sabbatical.
But almost instantly, restlessness sets in. Reflexively, my finger searches for the Twitter app or I type “F-A-C-E-B-” in my browser before remembering what time of year it is. My relief at escaping angry tirades becomes anxiousness about what I’m missing. I wonder if someone is trying to get a hold of me on Messenger. Perhaps I’ll just open it up and check…maybe I’ll just browse my news feed to make sure there’s not a comet about to slam into us…what if I lurk but don’t write? Before I know it, I’m back to posting “The Good Place” GIFs and retweeting snarky jokes. At best, I think I’ve made it a week through Lent.
To be fair, I don’t have a lifetime discipline of Lenten fasting like many Christians do. I grew up Baptist, and there’s nothing that terrifies a Baptist more than being mistaken for a Catholic. So while my school friends gave up chocolate or soda in the weeks before Easter, I happily devoured sugar and thanked my stars I was Protestant (even though Lent is observed by Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and other Protestant denominations).
It wasn’t until I met my wife, who grew up Methodist, that I reconsidered Lent. Kelly gives up coffee every year, and she’s found it to be a spiritually enriching experience. While I don’t think the world is ready for me to ditch the caffeine, I’ve tried do my own Lent, breaking from my social media obsession and replacing it with more intentional conversation and prayer (I connect only for blog and podcast updates).
As I’ve told you, it hasn’t gone well.
The necessary ache
The thing about Lent that you don’t really understand until you do it is that it hurts. If you’re doing it correctly, you’re giving up a habit or item that means something to you, a regular — perhaps even sustaining — part of your day. It’s painful to give up caffeine when you depend on coffee to help you function each morning. It’s inconvenient to turn off the TV for over a month and remain unaware of what’s happening on your favorite shows. And it’s going to hurt to close social media and not have an outlet for your frustrations, a platform for your thoughts, or a window into other people’s lives.
What compounds the pain is that it’s totally voluntary. This isn’t coerced; especially among Protestants like myself, for whom Lent is completely optional. This is a decision made of our own volition and, in my case, done not out of pressure but as part of a denomination that has traditionally shunned this part of the Liturgical Calendar (actually, outside of Advent and Easter, Baptists tend to shun most parts of the Liturgical Calendar). And contrary to what I believed growing up, observing Lent isn’t about giving up a harmful or sinful practice; those are things I should be striving to put off every day. This is giving up something that, in its right place, isn’t harmful; it can even be good. It hurts to give it up, but it’s even harder realizing that I’m willingly taking on this pain.And yet, if the purpose of Lent is to give us a glimpse into Christ’s sufferings, shouldn’t it hurt and shouldn’t it be volitional? Lent is the period leading up to Good Friday; it’s a time in which we keep his sufferings at the forefront and strive to remember the cost of his sacrifice. If I gave up something easy, like going to the gym or drinking pop (which I don’t do that often), would it even matter? And isn’t the voluntary nature of Lent in line with Christ’s willingness to come and die a horrible death? He had no sins to repent from; he gave up the very good gift of life willingly to suffer for us. As I reflect on the pain I willingly take on at Lent, I’m both touched by the small glimpse I get of Christ’s willingness to take to the cross and humbled by the fact that he completed his arduous task and I can’t even observe faithfully for a week.
Then again, there’s also redemption in that failure.
The poetry in failure
There’s a certain futility in Lent. Even if we make it through 40 days of fasting, we’re still at best left with a surface-level glimpse at Christ’s suffering. We might have received a taste of what it means to suffer, but let’s be honest: giving up social media, coffee or chocolate for a month and comparing it to crucifixion and the silence of God is like blinking and saying we know what it’s like to be blind. It’s a nice effort, but it never comes close to the level of sacrifice we remember on Good Friday.
Similarly, if we’re not careful, there’s a risk of self-righteousness that comes with Lent. We might think that our successful completion of the season gives us an extra dose of spirituality come Easter weekend, and that we’ve commemorated the season better than those who ignore it or stumble. We go into Easter feeling like we’ve accomplished something, that we’ve earned something from God, that we’re part of a spiritual elite. I know that’s not a teaching of the observance, but it’s a very human risk.
But the entire point of Good Friday and Easter is that we aren’t spiritually special or strong. Good Friday occurs because we’re not even spiritually alive. We’re enemies of God who need a savior. We celebrate that Christ did what we couldn’t; he finished the task we were unable to begin and paid a bill we’d never afford.
There’s a poetry in my failure to complete Lent that carries with it sweet whispers of grace. I’m reminded of my soul’s weakness and my proclivity to choose comfort and self over pain and sacrifice. My failure is a reminder that I’m not Christ on the road to Calvary; I’m the disciple who couldn’t even stay awake in the garden. It’s a brutal reminder that my own efforts to know Christ are bound to fail; I need him to do what I couldn’t. I fail at Lent and, in that failure, see a picture of my need and Christ’s gift. In my yearly striving to do better and make progress, I see a gentle reminder of sanctification and his commitment to helping me become a better person.
And so this year, the Facebook is off and Twitter is deleted from my phone. I pray for the strength to make it through; I’m thankful for the grace that will support me even if I don’t.