Around Lent season of this year, I found myself irritated as I was thinking about what to give up for 40 days. I was mulling over my different options when I realized two things:
- Lent causes me to feel shame.
- Giving up stuff for Lent has never made me feel closer to Jesus.
First of all, I’ve always been taught, whether directly or indirectly, that Lent is about giving up stuff that’s “bad for you.” It’s sacrificing something you love–that you indulge in–that isn’t good for your life. Growing up we were always giving up some kind of food for 40 days. Today I have a zillion friends who give up chips, chocolate, alcohol, pizza… The message for my brain: “Food I enjoy is sinful.” And if I cheat and sneak a bite of the forbidden food, there’s this enormous guilt and shame that follows that I have failed Jesus, and I’ve also failed myself. Food seems to be the #1 choice of sacrifice, but I’ve seen other people give up a favorite show, social media, or television as a whole. While the choice of sacrifice and suffering differs across the board, the shame is the same when people “fail.” Lent is like a springtime New Year’s Resolution–a fresh promise to do or not do something only to fail a week into it and feel like a big jerk for Jesus.
Shame has never made me feel closer to Jesus. Giving up chocolate has never drawn me closer to my Lord. I understand, now in my adult years, the idea behind “giving up something for Lent” is to, on a small scale, experience and resist temptation as Jesus did during his time in the desert with Satan. It’s supposed to allow me to identify with Christ. But that’s not what happens for me. Lent season becomes about me–my sinful desires for food or activities I love and my failure to identify with Christ.
And yes, I’ve seen others who, instead of giving up something, pour out their lives for 40 days doing something for others. I love that people do this, and I love the idea behind it, but it stresses me out. I feel like I am forcing myself to find ways to serve that quite frankly God hasn’t asked me to do. It still ends up, at the end of the day, being about me and whether or not I was able to follow through on a promise to God–usually not–and feeling like a failure.
With all this running through my heart I simply whined in prayer, “What do YOU want from me? You tell me what you want me to give up or what you want me to do. I want this season to be about You.”
The immediate response I heard like a tender whisper to my heart that filled my entire living room was: All I want is you.
The vision that came across my mind was of Mary and Martha, two sisters whom Jesus adored. Martha is known for her busyness and bustling around doing things; Mary is known for sitting at Jesus’ feet with an air of childlike wonder and expectancy, just waiting for whatever Jesus had to say next. I have always identified myself with Martha.
With this picture in my mind I heard: Sit at my feet and learn My story. Learn Who I am. Give me yourself so I can teach you about Me.
In the days that followed I had a hunger to learn about who Jesus was as a person, yet I had the strong conviction I wasn’t supposed to be in church. I also realized there are major gaps in my knowledge about who Jesus was because I’d only known him in the context of Bible stories and Christian traditions. I’ve spent my whole life in church learning the lessons of Jesus–from his parables and experiences–and striving to try harder at being a “good Christian” (living out the lessons and traditions of Christianity that I learn through sermons and Bible studies).
I’ve never questioned the traditions. I’ve never questioned what I’ve been taught. I have put 100% of my belief in sermons and studies as how I’m supposed to live; if anything in my heart doesn’t match what I learn then I must be wrong. After all pastors and church leaders are educated and experienced in this stuff. I’ve never allowed me to think for myself in my own faith because I didn’t know it was okay or even how to; I’ve never allowed myself to explore, let alone express, what lives in my own heart about God because I figured I would be wrong.
I have spent the last many months studying and learning about Jesus just between the two of
us, without the distraction of church and my tendency to take what I hear from others (especially church “authorities” as my mind held them to be) as my own belief. God is revealing the truths that live in my own heart–and have for years–about Jesus, and He’s teaching me to be confident in those truths even when they don’t match the world or even Christian culture. God needs me to be confident about what He places on my heart so I can stand firmly later. I am shocked and relieved by what Jesus is teaching me, but I am not confident in my expression. There’s an uncomfortable dissonance between what I believe about Him and what I’ve been taught my whole life–it’s scary to know that I am going to offend people. (I actually already have here and possibly here and maybe here.) But none of this is about me; it’s all about God and the news of his love for ALL people and what that Love looks like.
God is going to bring me back to church; He has been clearly reassuring about that, but He has given me zero clue as to when. Typical. While I haven’t been in church, molding my normal pew spot on Sundays, He’s kept me active within the church body through the Shattering Stigma mental health ministry and precious one-on-one experiences with my children, husband, friends, and strangers. Church on Sunday is simply one way, not the only way, to worship and connect with God and the church body.
I know from the deepest part of me that where God has me is where He needs me right now; and while I am not yet comfortable (and probably won’t ever be), I have to trust what I am learning is from God and true. Maybe not always 100% right, but rooted Truth. But I don’t think God cares so much about me being right or wrong; he cares more about me being connected with Jesus and confident about what lives in my heart and obedient to His calling.