By Scott Smith
For centuries Lent has been considered a penitential season – a time of intentional self-examination, and penitential practices have long been understood to be a vital catalyst toward that end. The original purpose of these practices was to create an atmosphere within the heart that both propelled us toward an honest appraisal of our brokenness and pointed us in the direction of repentance, of returning to God. These practices were not meant to be an end in themselves that gain us better standing before God. They weren’t intended to “solve” the problem of human brokenness, rather, they are meant to create an environment which makes self-examination possible so that we can find our way out of the darkness. Lent is a gracious invitation to perceive and name those things in our lives that are obstacles to the wholeness that God passionately wants to give us, a wholeness that we can never experience apart from learning the many ways in which all of us are broken.
Of course self-examination will do no one any good at all unless it is approached with a measure of honesty as well as a genuine desire for transformation. The problem is, however, being completely honest with ourselves is something that we are inclined to shy away from both consciously and unconsciously. Our natural tendency is to clothe ourselves in layers of denial and dishonesty that disguise our true condition, the result being that we only become more alone in our brokenness.
So what do we hope to discover through these penitential practices. In the church of my formational years, the goal was to search high and low and see “if there be any wicked way in me,” the result being a list of “sins” we needed to confess “lest we eat and drink damnation” unto ourselves on Communion Sunday. This approach is terribly reductionistic and ineffective. I would argue that gaining insight into the mechanisms of our brokenness is a better goal. I can’t remember for certain who it was, but a renowned psychologist argued that even our most destructive behaviors are rooted in a survival instinct. As crazy as it may seem, even at our worst, we are driven by a desire to live. If this is even remotely true, then the insight we need is what areas of brokenness are our trying to address through behaviors that will never get us what we want or need.
The truth is that we are forever filling our lives with things that do not satisfy our hearts, things that actually compound our brokenness. When our hearts start to ache because of the vacuum of spiritual hunger, we try our very best to soothe that ache in ways that don’t work. When we are overwhelmed by anxiety and existential angst we are given to a plethora of distractions. And when we become acutely aware of the profound emptiness of our hungry hearts, we consume that which can never satiate that hunger.
Abba Poemen (4th/5th century, Desert Father) offers wise counsel, “Do not give your heart that which does not satisfy the heart.” That is a good word for the season of Lent. It is an invitation to identify and abstain from those things which do not leave us satisfied. Lent offers us an opportunity to fast from that which is not food for our souls. It is a good time to reflect with some measure of honesty about how hungry our hearts really are. But more than being a chance to recognize that we may be spiritually starving to death, Lent is also an invitation to a feast – an invitation to eat and drink from the wellspring of God’s inescapable love which is genuine food for our souls. God wants our hearts to be satisfied, and God wants to satisfy our hearts. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, our problem, however, is not that we desire too much joy, rather we desire too little.