Lent as Training

Lent as Training February 27, 2023

The disciplines of Lent are good ways to train ourselves for the difficulties ahead.  And the hardest but most fruitful disciplines are not those we choose but the ones God Himself lays on us in the everyday challenges of life.

Joy Pullman at the Federalist has written a thoughtful and helpful article entitled Simple Observances For Lent, A Season That Can Help Christians Prepare For Persecution.  She writes,

The wise see the gathering storms and make ready to weather them. The culture war is a spiritual war, and that means it must be fought with spiritual means: receiving Christ’s true Body and Blood, fasting, prayer, public repentance, and increased Biblical instruction. This is what Lent is all about: training for and engaging in spiritual warfare.

She discusses “‘fasts’ of not just food but also of enjoyments, not as punishment but to practice self-denial and obedience so we are better capable of denying ourselves and taking up our crosses when suffering arises in our lives, as it does to all.”

She goes on to recommend simple and not-all-that arduous observances that families can do, such as reading books of devotion or edification together and taking on projects that help other people.  I like her idea of having a jar of slips of paper that her children draw from, giving tasks such as “Pray for your [father, mother, church, friends at school, family, etc.]”; “Pray for someone who annoys you,” and “Pick up five messy things in your brother’s room.”

Such small disciplines are like military training for spiritual warfare.  Or like exercises in physical training, building up our weak muscles to make us more spiritually fit.  But, of course, Lenten disciplines are no substitute for the Word and Sacraments, through which God builds up our faith.  Rather, the Lenten disciplines should drive us to God’s Word and Sacraments, both in our private and family devotions and in worship.  (I would venture to say that virtually all Lutheran churches have a midweek Lenten service.)
Indeed, it is of great value to learn how to deny oneself.  We almost never have to do that, these days, though our ancestors certainly did.  Being able to say “no” to our desires is a survival skill, for persecution if it comes, but certainly for the trials and tribulations that we always must endure.
In fact, as David Deavel points out in The Imaginative Conservative, those daily trials and tribulations are the disciplines that God Himself gives us.  Those can be the hardest for us to bear, rather than the ones we choose for ourselves, but they are the most beneficial.  In his article Aiming for the Toughest Penances in Lent, though he uses the Catholic language of “penance,” he makes some helpful points about bearing our crosses.  Some excerpts:
The best kind of penances, all spiritual writers seem to agree, are the penances that are passive. They are the ones God has chosen for us.
While the term “passive” makes it sound as if we are simply sitting there, this only means that God has taken the initiative in giving us our crosses.
We are doing what God wants most when we submit to the difficult realities in our lives that range from being tired, sick, or sleepless to uncomfortable, bored, or depressed.
What is called for with all of them is not a mere stoicism involving a stiff upper lip or clenched teeth but to see them, while not denying their difficulty, as opportunities to praise the Lord in the midst of the dark, to serve him, and to participate in the work that Christ himself did in his earthly ministry.
The rule is that the best penances to be taken on are those which contradict our own wills—and thus remind us that what we want is not nearly as important as what God wants.
We ought to aim at the toughest penances, I believe. But we ought to remember two things. God has put the best ones right in front of our noses—if only we’ll accept the grace to see them and thank God in the midst of them.

I needed to hear that!  This is in accord with Luther’s Theology of the Cross.  And with this text, which is perfect for Lent (my bolds):  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The “daily” makes me think that Jesus is referring not just to the big crosses that we might have to bear, such as persecution and major tragedies, but the day-to-day problems and occasions for self-denial, such as we encounter routinely in all of our vocations.


Photo via pxfuel, royalty-free images

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