Lent is hard for some of us. It’s a time of penance, but how do we handle that if we’ve sinned against ourselves more than we’ve sinned against others?
We are all image bearers of God. Whatever we do to one another, we do to God. As you are also an image bearer, whatever you do to yourself, you do to God.
It’s not holy to be cruel to ourselves.
This is especially problematic within Christian traditions that dismiss suffering or even encourage us to suffer as if all suffering was always productive and should never be avoided. (It’s strange how the people in power, who encourage all that humility and suffering, aren’t usually willing to be humble or suffer themselves. Hmmm. Weird.)
I’ve been pretty cruel to myself over the years. I don’t have a problem with being greedy and putting my wants ahead of other people’s needs. When I first started observing Lent, I struggled to find anything to give up. I just don’t allow myself many of what I’d consider to be luxuries. I barely have what I need to survive as it is. For me to give up things I don’t even do to begin with would be ridiculous.
It’s easy for me to deprive myself. I do it all the time, for no dang reason at all, just because I’m hard on myself. I don’t struggle to love others. It’s very much the opposite. I find it’s easy to love others, even people who don’t particularly care for me. I find it very hard to love myself.
This Lent I’m doing penance for that.
Penance is a way of making things right when you’ve done something wrong. Well, I’ve wronged myself. I won’t be giving anything up for Lent since that would just wind up being an extension of all the ways I’ve denied myself in the past. Instead, I’m going to do what I’ve been doing for the past few years. I’ll be adding a daily practice for Lent.
I’ve added different things for Lent in other years, but this year I’m going to do one kind thing for myself each day. It’s a hard thing to do. I have to look at myself through someone else’s eyes—through Christ’s eyes. It’s going to be a serious challenge.
It might sound selfish, but it’s not an act of selfishness when your biggest transgressions have been against yourself. It’s a way of working with God to heal the damage done.I talk about justice a lot. I believe it’s a Christian’s duty to work for justice instead of ignoring or romanticizing suffering. Why would I be exempt from that justice work? Why would I be any less deserving of love and compassion than the next person?
I’m sharing this because I know a lot of other people are in the same boat. I think there’s a lot of value in people who already care about themselves and tend to prioritize themselves above others giving up something they enjoy. If you’re someone who finds it easier to care for yourself than for others, I’m not addressing you. Not everyone is in the same situation. We don’t all struggle with the same issues. Some of us need to give something up to do penance and grow spiritually. Some of us need to do penance and grow in different ways.
Loving ourselves doesn’t mean being egotistical or narcissistic. It means recognizing we are all valuable and we are all loved. If you have trouble caring for yourself, Lent can be difficult, not just because you really, really want that cup of coffee, but because when you’re already hurting on a deep level, taking away one of the few things you enjoy can feel like piling onto the punishment you’ve already received. This is even truer if someone is dealing with depression or has dealt with religious abuse. Instead of not participating in Lent at all, there are other options if you think it would be healthier for your spiritual life.
If you feel the same way I do, give it some thought. Maybe for Lent, you could also do something kind for yourself each day. Each a vegetable. Take a shower. Get your teeth cleaned. Schedule a therapy appointment. It’s not about putting ourselves above everyone else. It’s about not grinding ourselves into the dirt for no reason. God says we’re loved and valued. Who are we to argue with God?
If my biggest sin is being cruel to one of God’s children—myself—that’s the sin I need to work on.