Failing at Lent: Unable to disconnect

Failing at Lent: Unable to disconnect March 7, 2018
Image via Pixa Bay

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.

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  • paulsilvan

    Very religious people should try giving up their belief in god for lent.

  • Ivlia Vespasia

    I feel sorry for you because you are so addicted to “social media”, a form of modern technology that is not very social If you want to know the news read a newspaper – purchased by a person from a newsagents, made from paper with words printed on it -, if you need to contact someone you can ring them, write to them – email or snail mail – or visit them. Social media is anything but social, how many of the people on your Facebook page do you know, in person, in reality as a real human being to talk to face to face – not through a tablet /phone /laptop screen – or whichever form you use. You sound like a person who needs to visit a specialist in order to get help for your problems, because giving up living in a fantasy world for 40 days – and please remember that Sundays don’t count, nor do feast days or the majority of the days only fast days and Fridays. Food being given up was and is a real sacrifice, “social media” as well would be a real suffering for many (not all as I know many people who use it from seldom to not at all) and donating time to charity work as well would show real devotion. Sorry to say I only manage to give up food and do some charity work.

  • Robin Warchol

    I think the intentions like “giving up social media” are good but not exactly realistic. What might be more realistic is maybe a limitation on when you go on things like Facebook to maybe a couple times a day and that’s it. The better plan for “giving up” for lent is to think small and realistic and not big and grand. What one “gives up” should then be replaced with either reading the Bible or spiritual books, so you are replacing one thing with better things.

  • You might be right. I think a better plan might have been deleting it from my phone only or, as you said, limiting my time. That said, the full-on break has been more successful this year than in the past and I do feel much more calm and focused without the constant social media distraction.

    Thanks for reading!

  • I disagree about social media not being very social. Yes, it can never replace in-person relationships. And through this Lenten season, God has opened up some great opportunities to get to know neighbors and reconnect with old friends. But I think the ability to communicate with others around the world is a great benefit, and while I have several friends via social media I have never met face-to-face, the truth is that many of them are people who I’ve been able to share things with and pray for in deep ways. I think it’s easy for social media to be shallow, but I also think the potential is there for serious good. I am currently pursuing a graduate certificate in communication and new media because I believe that the potential of these communications is so great — but the danger is great as well. It’s imperative to use it wisely, which I’m trying to learn.

    As for it not being a great sacrifice, I also disagree. When Jesus withdraw into the wilderness, he wasn’t just fasting from food but from personal interaction. He was alone in the wilderness for 40 days. I think a fast from relationship and constant stimulation is a good thing. Nor do I feel like I’m in a fantasy world. It’s not a substitute for this world; rather, the respite I’m seeking is to escape from constant distraction and the bombardment of news.

  • Actually, many Christians do something called “Atheism for Lent,” in which they stop doing their Bible reading for 40 days and read writings by atheist and agnostic writers to understand the different perspective.

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  • Beautiful piece. Thank you!

  • Thank you for reading!