No, Lent is Not About Hurting Yourself

No, Lent is Not About Hurting Yourself March 1, 2020

It happened again this Lent as always: the anxious Ash Wednesday discussion about fasting and abstinence and what, exactly, counts as abstinence. Yes, you can eat alligator. No, you’re not supposed to have a turkey burger. No one seems to know exactly what to do with the new meat replacements like the Impossible Whopper. Many people are pointing out that they like fish better than meat so it doesn’t seem like penance to enjoy a nice piece of salmon or a tuna melt. Vegetarians are asking what they’re supposed to do. I don’t have a lot of answers for that, though I did write a post about fasting and chronic illness awhile back.

I also saw several of my friends beating up on themselves for complaining. “You’re not supposed to have a treat,” they were saying, or words to that effect. “It’s supposed to be hard. It’s Lent. Lent is about suffering. It’s supposed to feel bad. I should stop whining.”

At that point I do have to butt in.

Lent is not about suffering. It’s about repentance.

God doesn’t want anybody to suffer.

God wants you to repent, which in this fallen world can be a painful process, but the pain in itself is never something He wants. Pain is a bad thing, and God cannot desire evil.

Remember, Christ Himself was incapable of sin. He could feel temptation like we do, but He never committed a sin. If suffering itself were a good thing and a blessing, He wouldn’t have healed all of those people in the gospels. He would have told them to stop whining and look on the bright side. And He would never have voluntarily asked His father to take His own suffering away, but He did, in Gethsemane. He begged for it to go away if it was possible, and then, when it turned out that it wasn’t, He bore it as best He could and transformed it into grace. That is what Christians are supposed to do with our suffering. We’re supposed to relieve it in others, avoid it in ourselves if we can, pray for it to be taken away, accept it when it inevitably comes as part of our lives in a fallen world, and allow Christ to transform it into grace. But the suffering is never the point.

The word “repent” means “turn around.” That’s all it really means: changing your direction, not hurting yourself or feeling bad or being embarrassed. Every time you find yourself going in the wrong direction, and you turn around, that’s a repentance you’ve just performed. We as Christians should constantly be in a state of repentance, constantly checking our direction and re-orienting ourselves toward God wherever we’ve strayed away– and Lent is a time to be particularly attentive to our need to repent. God is pure Love. Where you haven’t loved perfectly, repent and try to get it right this time.

Sometimes, turning around can be a painful process, because we’re so set in our ways that the spiritual muscles have atrophied. Sometimes, turning around can be humiliating, because we were so publicly insistent on going the direction we did. Sometimes, turning around can be terrifying because we’ve invested so much of our sense of identity in the direction we decided we ought to go. But turning around is also joyful and liberating. It’s a relief to give up going in the wrong direction and get back to what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s good to shed burdens you were carrying that you thought were part of yourself, that actually weren’t you. It’s good to discover who you really are, underneath society’s expectations and the lies the devil tells you. That’s the way God would like for us to feel whenever we repent. He knows that in fact it’s painful, and He suffers with you and transforms the pain into grace, but the suffering isn’t something He wants.

So, perhaps the first act of repentance God’s calling you to this Lent, is to turn around and re-orient your beliefs about suffering. If you are inordinately terrified of any discomfort, perhaps you need to consciously let go and work on bearing life’s inevitable pains as patiently as you can. Maybe there’s a practice you can take up that will help you. It doesn’t have to be fasting from food every day. You could run a Couch to 5k or something miserable like that.

But if, on the other hand, you’re one of those people who’s been telling yourself “it’s supposed to hurt” and trying to be happy about suffering, maybe the repentance you need is to stop doing that. Consciously remind yourself that God is not an abusive dad. Orient yourself toward the loving Father and not the fake one you thought you had to honor. Don’t take on extra practices that look like penance but are actually helping you be stuck in your mistake. Consciously allow yourself to mourn for things that are terrible.  Resolve to love yourself and others instead. Make it your Lenten practice to thank God for not wanting you to suffer every day. Have a little piece of Easter chocolate every night to remind yourself that the whole point of this is the Resurrection and not to make you miserable. That might be much more appropriate.

Repentance is turning around, to the God Who is Pure Love instead of the idols we’ve made for ourselves. And everybody has at least a few idols. I have lots. What are yours?

I have made an idol out of social class and entertained nasty thoughts about my neighbors for being hillbillies. I’m going to repent by listening to Bluegrass hymns and consciously trying to be friendly toward the people I see every day. I’m going to make an extra effort to treat my poor neighbors at The Friendship Room with a small gift whenever I treat myself. That’s my penance. That’s how I’m going to try to turn around. Perhaps your idol is the same as mine, and you can do something like I’m doing.

Perhaps you’ve made an idol out of self-loathing. You can turn back to the God Who loves you by taking fifteen minutes every day to do something you really enjoy that makes you feel good about yourself.

Perhaps you’ve made an idol out of clothes. You take way too much time to get you outfit ready for church and need to humble yourself by wearing something simpler and taking the extra time to prepare your heart instead.

Perhaps your idol is just putting things off, and your penance is to make a to-do list. Make that dental appointment. Call that old friend. Stop saying you’ll do the chores “tomorrow” and do them before you go to bed.

Yes, any of these things can hurt. But the pain is beside the point. The point is doing them– repenting, turning back to God when you’ve been seeking other things in His place. Becoming more fully yourself when you thought you were supposed to be somebody else. Learning more perfectly what love is and no longer doing the things that Love wouldn’t do.

This repentance can be a lot more difficult than just finding a random way to hurt yourself.

But isn’t it so much better as well?

(image via Pixabay)




Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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