If you haven’t read anything by Jen Hatmaker, you’re in for a treat. In her book, 7: An experimental mutiny against excess, Hatmaker identifies seven areas of excess in her life: food, clothes, waste, spending, possessions, media and stress and, with hilarious and profound results, strips these areas down to basics. After recognising myself in her descriptions of excess, greed and waste, I admitted to myself that my consumerist tendencies meant that I was doing a pretty poor job of stewarding my money. Feeling inspired, I decided to give up unnecessary shopping for Lent. I asked a few friends to help keep me on track but left ‘unnecessary’ undefined, preferring (perhaps naively) to trust my instincts.
A week later I also gave up daytime social media. After hearing my four-year-old son yell: “Get off your phone, mummy,” three times in an hour, I realised it wasn’t just my money I was doing a poor job of stewarding.
When I told my husband my plans he laughed, thinking I was joking. “You’ll never keep that” he said. “How rude!” I replied. But he had a point. Because although I like to be in control, I’m pretty bad at self-control.
As predicted, keeping my Lenten promise has not been a breeze. A trip to Ikea was a significant challenge to the shopping element and afternoons spent confined to the apartment with a bossy 4-year-old and a grizzly toddler have left my fingers twitching in the direction of my phone and the virtual, adult world of social media. From an objective point of view, I am doing a pretty bad job.
Usually, the thought of doing a bad job leaves me feeling guilty and anxious but, when it comes to these Lenten slip ups, I’m trying to resist because I’ve recently had an epiphany: Lent isn’t something we’re supposed to win. In fact, if we find Lent easy it’s probably because we haven’t given up the right thing. It’s meant to be hard and we’re meant to slip up or feel we’re in danger of slipping up. What matters isn’t that we struggle but how we respond to the struggle.
If, on one hand, we respond by trying to claw back control and tell ourselves we need to try harder, we end up with guilt, despair or resignation and quickly fall back into old patterns of dependence. Or, worse, we do manage to avoid slipping up and Easter becomes a celebration of our egos rather than the power of God’s love.
But if we respond by acknowledging our weakness, recognise our over-dependence on worldly things and admit our inability to control our impulses, we can be humbled, emptied and ultimately transformed.
Because the Gospel teaches us that the true path to transformation, freedom and joy is through loss, surrender and weakness. Jesus endlessly describes the kingdom of God in terms of reversal: losing to find, less being more, the last being first. And, always one to practice what he preached, his death and resurrection is the ultimate reversal story.
Of course, this message is the root of why we give up things for Lent in the first place. These things are token sacrifices which hopefully lead us towards a greater surrender of self. But we won’t deepen our relationship with God simply through giving up alcohol, chocolate or shopping. We deepen it through the struggle to give up these things and the opportunity it provides. Because struggle breaks down the ego and our misguided beliefs that we are in control and know what’s best for us. And it is only through recognising our weakness that we can recognise our need for grace and it is only through grace that we can be flooded with love and fall upwards into a deeper relationship with God. In the words of the 20th century suffragist and theologian Maude Royden: “When you have nothing left but God, you become aware that God is enough.”
In the context of the scope and scale of human struggle, giving up shopping and social media for 40 days is trivial, to put it mildly. Still, I believe there is value in the struggle to surrender these things, not least because it will be preparing and training me for other, greater struggles.
So, if like me, you feel like you’re losing lent, then take comfort from the fact that it’s not something you’re meant to win. Instead of feeling guilty, see it as an opportunity to confess, both in the sense of confessing weakness and in the sense of confessing God to be the one on whom you need to lean on and whose love makes all things possible.
And, to those who haven’t given up anything for Lent: it’s not too late. If Lent isn’t a competition, then it doesn’t matter when you start. But, do yourself a favour: pick something you think will be hard and see where the struggle leads.