I learned I had no discipline or willpower at age nine when my fourth grade religion teacher had us write down in our composition notebooks what we would be giving up for Lent. That was a real head-scratcher; any child would’ve had a hard time having a “vice” in my household. My brother and I had everything we needed, and most of what we wanted, but unlike many of my friends, we didn’t have video-game systems that we played into the wee hours. My mother didn’t keep candy in the house (well, I learned much later that she did, but it was well-hidden from us). I settled on giving up knuckle cracking and obediently wrote it down in my prayer journal.
Joint cracking seems so funny and oddly specific to give up for Lent, especially for a nine-year-old girl. But I think I was onto something. I noticed that I turned to wringing out the bones of my hands when I encountered a math problem I couldn’t immediately solve, when my father was pacing around the house a little too loudly, when I was left alone with groups of girls who would giggle conspiratorially. It was my release valve. As I struggled through that Lenten season I had a sickening feeling that this struggle foreshadowed my whole life–a life where I would be looking for a release valve a little more fiercely than my peers.
This is probably the part where you would expect that I would start detailing a harrowing descent into alcohol/drug abuse and one-night-stands. That didn’t happen–but only because I was (and am) terrified of losing control. And terrified of getting murdered. My pet temptations since adolescence are mundane and common things–cigarettes, the Internet, overeating. I’ve turned to all (and more) when faced with unpleasant social situations, extreme emotions, or just sheer boredom.
Everyone needs a release valve, but if a need to be “released” becomes your obsession, you can run away from living an authentic life. If you need to drown out every thought with substance, sex, or constant streams of information, you may drown out the voice of God too.
Jesus was “led by the spirit into the desert” immediately after he was baptized. And yes, the Devil tempted him there (with food and appeals to ego; the Devil clearly doesn’t change his tactics much) but God was with him, and “the angels ministered to him.”
This Lenten season, I will not focus on one habit to break, the way I did as an anxious nine-year-old. I will pray for freedom from looking for the release valve. I’ll pray that I can get quiet enough to hear the spirit leading me to the desert.
I know I’ll battle the Devil there, but maybe the angels will minister to me too.