We’re just nine weeks into 2017, and if research can be trusted, more than half of all New Year’s resolutions have long been tossed aside. Intentions were good, of course. Willpower and enthusiasm sent us off in the right direction, toward losing weight, exercising, replacing bad habits with good ones, reading the Bible and praying each day, mastering a skill, learning something new, and so on. We may have even practiced, for a time, the patterns needed to reach these dreams.
But sticking to new routines isn’t easy. That’s why so many resolutions have already been discarded. Our lives have taken on a shape, born of repetition and practiced for years. Old habits draw us back time and again because that’s our default.
Many Christians are now observing Lent—an annual 40-day practice leading up to Easter—which requires the same sort of discipline and commitment as our New Year’s resolutions. During these 40 days, tradition calls Christians to practice the spiritual discipline of self-denial in honor of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Fasting is a common choice for many, whether it’s skipping a meal each week or abstaining from meat on Fridays. Giving up a favorite indulgence, such as sweets, alcohol, or social media, is also a popular choice.
Lent hasn’t always been popular with evangelical Christians because of its association with Catholicism. But renewed interest in high church practices among Christians as a whole has revived the observation of Lent in recent years. Lent for 2017 begins March 1, Ash Wednesday, and continues for 40 days, until April 13, Holy Thursday. Over the past week or so, talk about Lenten practices has been common among Christians as they share how the Holy Spirit is prompting them to participate.
These conversations can grow eerily close to those we had in late December and early January as we crafted our New Year’s resolutions. We must be careful not to frame our Lenten experience using the discarded planks of our New Year’s goals, which are often designed with one beneficiary in mind: self. Lent’s aim is to dethrone self altogether.
And there’s the rub: The pattern and routine in need of change is the abhorrent drive to focus on self in every thought, word, and deed. Lent gives us an opportunity to set aside our self-improvement projects—even those that are spiritual in nature.
Purposeful self-denial at Lent teaches us to focus more keenly upon Jesus, who willingly suffered for us. Self-denial—whether in food or amusement or indulgence—strips us of the usual means of comfort and soothing we typically turn to. It helps us practice a new pattern—for 40 days, at least—of turning to God for comfort instead of satisfying the cry of our flesh.
Much has been said lately about privilege. A good litmus test for its presence is the ability to choose. Choosing the form our Lenten practice will take is the epitome of choice, isn’t it? For 40 days, we check fleshly urges to indulge ourselves. In that denial, our bent toward comfort is exposed for what it can be: a fog that blinds and numbs us to those whose suffering won’t end come April 13. Our Lenten practices can be a powerful corrective, therefore, enabling us to see afresh those without the privilege to opt into or out of suffering.
Participating in Lent puts us in position to learn a new comfort routine. When the flesh cries for its usual soothing, that’s our signal to cut a new path to the throne of grace where “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort . . . comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3, ESV). That’s good news for comfort addicts like us. As we disrupt our typical routines, we’re promised that God is a merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He won’t forsake us in our hour of need. But receiving God’s comfort, as wonderful as that is, is not the singular aim.
Like our New Year’s resolutions, Lent can morph into mere self-improvement. We opt into a season of self-denial so that after 40 days, we have a new and improved spiritual self. Instead, the comfort we receive from God is meant to be passed along. God comforts us “so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Learning a new comfort routine starts with turning to God and ends in turning toward others.
This year, if you plan to observe Lent, consider changing it up a bit. Choose your form of self-denial. Turn to God when your flesh cries out for comfort. But then consider how the comfort you are receiving can be recycled to be of comfort to others. Refuse to settle for a Lenten experience rooted in self-fulfillment or self-improvement. Make room instead for God’s presence—the Comforter Himself—to manifest in our emptiness and spill out to a world longing for Him.
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Erin Straza is managing editor at Christ and Pop Culture, host of the podcast Persuasion, and a freelance writer and marketing communications consultant. Her first book is titled “Comfort Detox: Finding Freedom from Habits That Bind You” (InterVarsity Press). Follow her on Twitter @ErinStraza or read more at ErinStraza.com.