The Problem with Lent

The problem with Lent is that it is forty days long.  I mean, really.  I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but forty days is forever.  I have complained repeatedly of this absurd length to my Catholic friend and asked her earnestly why Catholics are so mean!  I was all fired up about Lent when it first started, but I can’t stay fired up about anything for forty days!

The problem with Lent is that I gave up dessert, and I don’t think I really realized how much I love dessert.  I want dessert so badly all the time now, and even though I’m abiding by the Catholic rule that you break your fast on Sundays, that blessed reprieve is definitely not enough.

The problem with Lent is that I hate denying myself.  I live in a culture where food is always at my fingertips.  I can eat whenever I’m hungry, and even when I’m not.  The idea that I would stop myself from eating something I really want to eat is simply ludicrous in such a privileged society.  Even my five-year-old doesn’t get it.  He says, “I just don’t know why you would do that.”  And he even asked, “How does that help God?”  The idea that denying myself would be helpful to me seems not to have occurred to him.  Frankly, I’m questioning the logic myself these days.

The problem with Lent is that appetites are like some cancers.  As long as you let them continue unabated, they won’t bother you much.  But if you try to fight them…ooooooh, boy.  Watch out!  Because they bite back.  And it’s not just with dessert.  I want to eat everything in sight right now.  I will probably be the first person in the history of observing Lent to end my fast weighing more than when I started.

The problem with Lent is that the problem is not really with Lent.  The problem is with my flesh.  It simply does not want to die.  And it seems like on all fronts now, I’m experiencing a bit of a spiritual drought.  For about two weeks, I have not had the desire to practice any spiritual discipline.  I don’t want to be silent.  I don’t want to pray.  I don’t want to read my Bible.  I don’t want to get up early to spend time with God.  I don’t want to do any work.  I don’t want to serve anyone.  My motivation level for each of those tasks has been hovering around 0%.

Now, it is not totally bleak.  Nature continues to draw me to God, and this is a wonderful time of year.  The world has been transformed into bright, beautiful shades of green, and flowers have been popping out everywhere.  There is this one particular type of cherry blossom tree that is currently in full bloom, and it is simply magnificent.  I can’t decide if its blossoms look more like popcorn popping, or a firework exploding; regardless, I’ve never seen a stationary plant seem more in motion.  Whenever I pass them, I just have to stop and stare at them in awe.  They just look like an explosion frozen in time.  Marvelous.

Other than through nature, however, I feel nothing spiritually.  My senses are deadened.  I feel no encouragement from reading Scripture, no inspiration from prayer, no insight from silence, no joy from service.  It kind of reminds me of Captain Barbossa as he rants to Elizabeth Swan about the curse’s effect on him (in Pirates of the Caribbean:  Curse of the Black Pearl.  I will cite that reference for the five people in this country who may not have seen that movie.)  “I feel nothin’!”  he exclaims.  Same deal here.  All I feel is my flesh raging against all forms of self-denial.  I have hit a wall.  And so I have had to ask myself:

Should I keep doing these disciplines, even though they don’t seem to be helping me at all?  Should I keep reading my One Year Bible, even though I’m getting nothing from it?  If anything, I think the book of Numbers is actually taking me farther from God.  Plus, I have gotten seven days behind.  Should I try to catch back up?  Should I force myself to get up early, even though it seems not to be helping me to live a Spirit-filled life?  Should I keep observing Lent?  

To paraphrase my son’s concerns, how do these motions help God?  Or me, for that matter?

Is this not all descending into legalism?

I have more, but I think I’ll stop here and ask what you think.  Basically, my options are to grit my teeth and force myself through, or to stop these motions until some desire returns.

I actually have chosen a course and experienced some results, but I’m genuinely interested in what my brothers and sisters think about this conundrum.    Do you ever experience spiritual droughts?  What are they like for you?  How long do they typically last?  What do you do during them, and what do you do to get out of them?  Also, have you ever tried to observe Lent?  How did it go for you?

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10 responses to this post.

  1. I understand first hand the concept that you speak of. I think I experience it most physically when I am hiking on the Appalachian Trail. I love how God sometimes, at least for me, teaches me about my spiritual life through my physical life. The farther I push my body in speed, distance and altitude the more my body pushes back. I feel I am at the point of death until finally I reach my destination… and something amazing happens.

    I think this principle is best expressed in Caedmon’s Call’s track Lead of Love:
    Looking back at the road so far
The journey’s left its share of scars
Mostly from leaving the narrow and straight
    Looking back it is clear to me
That a man is more than the sum of his deeds
And how you’ve made good of this mess I’ve made
Is a profound mystery
    Looking back you know you had to bring me through
All that I was so afraid of
Though I questioned the sky, now I see why
Had to walk the rocks to see the mountain view
Looking back I see the lead of love
    Looking back I can finally see (I’d rather have wisdom)
How failures bring humility (than be)
Brings me to my knees (a comfortable fool)
Helps me see my need for Thee

    God’s journey is mysterious. Though He says if we seek Him we will find Him. He doesn’t explain often in scripture that the many times that we are seeking Him it is as if He is far away. I am glad we get to witness this concept a little in David’s life.

    Perseverance is the path… whether it is self denial (i.e., dessert) or pushing your body up a mountain where you have to walk the rocks to see the mountain view.

    The blessing is once it is done and the mountain is reached … looking back we see the lead of love.

    Reply

    • Brad, I love that Caedmon’s Call song. I used to listen to CC a lot in college. It’s been awhile; I might have to pull them back out:). And I like the mountain climbing analogy, and the idea of still pursuing God even when He seems distant. Thanks for your encouraging words. They give me some hope!

      Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on March 26, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Kim, long ago for Lent I gave up giving things up for Lent (it’s kind of like my annual New Year’s resolution never to make a New year’s resolution).

    Still, I know just what you mean about embarking on something, thinking it was within God’s will and then finding it to be dry and lifeless. Let me ask a question: when you decided to give up desserts was this a result of prayer, a decision made in God’s peace? If not, I think you have your answer right there. But even if so, it might be that now God is leading you elsewhere, even though the 40 days are not over.

    Which leads to another question: are you now feeling that fasting from desserts is not of God, that you are focusing on yourself in this period of denial? If so, you may be experiencing what Paul talked about in Romans; law (even self-imposed) leads to law-breaking, not grace.

    I don’t know if these are even remotely helpful or close to the issues you’re facing, Kim. But I do know that if nature is drawing you close to God then that is a good thing; you should probably allow to happen despite that fact that the rest of your spiritual plan is not going as you had expected. (And really, when have our spiritual plans ever gone as expected?)

    Tim

    Reply

    • Tim, thank you for asking the question about motivation. It made me reflect on my motivation to observe Lent and to acknowledge that I definitely didn’t pray about what to give up. Also, it made me examine the reason I decided to try out Lent in the first place. I was already feeling very dry spiritually, and to be honest, it had a lot to do with my Bible reading. In short, I am just not enjoying reading through the OT this year, b/c I am having a really hard time understanding God this time around. He just seems so murderous in Numbers. Usually, when I read bloody things in the OT that I don’t understand, I just wrap Isaiah 55 around me like a security blanket and tell myself that God’s ways are higher than my ways. This time around, that just kind of seemed like a cop out to me. I really wanted to ponder these actions, to imagine my reaction if they happened today, or to my own family. But I still couldn’t make any sense of them. And that’s a problem for my daily life b/c so much of my actions are based on my understanding of God’s character. Even Jesus explains His teachings on the Sermon on the Mount by telling us that following these commands will make us like our Father. But then I read about that same Father in Numbers and think…well, I don’t know what to think.

      It’s thrown me into a funk, and I’ll probably right more about that later this week. The point for now is that I chose to observe Lent as a way to reconnect to God. Usually I connect to Him through Scripture, but I also have a presupposition that discipline connects us to God. And so fasting from something seemed like a decent place to start. I chose desserts b/c I like desserts and so I thought it would be hard. It was definitely a “man-driven” attempt and not a “Spirit-driven” attempt, as I was not feeling much of the Spirit at the time…which was the problem. So far, though, I don’t think it has brought me much closer to God.

      Reply

      • Posted by Tim on March 26, 2012 at 1:45 pm

        Kim, this explanation makes me think you’re actually in a good space, even if it feels really uncomforatble.

        It may be as your friend Jenni said in her facebook post you mentioned below, that you are facing something unusually challenging. Or it may be instead that God is shifting your focus in ways you don’t yet recognize. If it were me I’d just let it play out, knowing that God is in me and working through me despite my feelings of inadequacy, failure even. Who knows where God ends up taking you when this period of time is all over?

        And keep in mind that not one of us in God’s family is a failure, ever. We’re children of the King for crying out loud!

        Blessings,
        Tim

        Reply

  3. My friend, Jenni, wrote me a message on Facebook about this post, and I got her permission to share part of what she wrote on here. I thought she asked a very good question. After telling me some of her own struggles (which are not from spiritual dryness, but from circumstantial desperation), she wrote:

    “I seem to love living in that very uncomfortable, stretching my faith, kind of place where I know I am about to do something I am not at all prepared to do. This has happened over and over again in my life in the past few years. I seem to thrive in it. So, at this point, I think my best answer for you is are you doing anything that scares you? Are you seeking to do more for God than people around you would call rational? I don’t want this to come off as proud, because I struggle in my own areas, just not this one. But, I wonder what God is calling you to do that is WAY bigger than giving up some certain type of food?”

    I thought those were interesting questions!

    Reply

    • Jenni,

      This response definitely gave me pause because there are definitely a lot of areas in my life that are very comfortable right now. Also, since I have recently come out of a long-ish period of feeling circumstantially “desperate” and dependent on God, perhaps this dry phase is the natural result of “what goes up must come down.” Or maybe it is a sign that I’m NOT challenging myself enough.

      I will say this, though: I do one thing that terrifies me. And that is write this blog. I’m trying to figure out how best to put this, and I think it might be best just to state the plain fact of the matter: for almost as long as my husband has been in ministry, I have lived in fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s bad enough to offend a brother or sister in the church as a layperson; it adds a whole other layer, however, when your family’s source of income can be put in jeopardy from holding the wrong opinion on an issue. And I think that most in the ministry would agree that, in worldly terms at least, that is a valid concern. In these past few months, however, Greg and I have had a chance to put away fear. We both came to the conclusion that we just can’t live like that anymore. It’s not worth it. Even now, though, I still sometimes worry when I write that the wrong person will read my blog and be offended (“Why is she even practicing Lent at all??? Lent is not in the Bible!”) and that it might have real repercussions for our family. Whenever I fearfully ask Greg about something I write, though, he simply replies, “We can’t live like that anymore.” And he’s right. It still terrifies me sometimes, though, to be honest about my walk like God. (Times like this morning.) And the funny thing is, my blog is the one place where I do feel peaceful in my relationship with God. Even while I struggle over Numbers, my writing continues to be so fulfilling and life-giving (to me). So maybe there is something to that “do what scares you” theory:).

      Reply

  4. Posted by bekster081305 on March 27, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Here is my take on this kind of thing:

    I know that I personally have very little self-discipline. I have tried over and over again to get in the habit of doing various good things, but every time I have failed. However, this is not to say that I didn’t do anything good in the process. In trying to read the whole Bible in year, for example, I would get way behind and have to catch up, but at least I eventually finished it. Actually, I have finished it 2 or 3 times in my life. It’s just that I was never successful at making it a habit to read the Bible every day. Because I know that I have a hard time with keeping up with things consistently, I have learned to make the goals for myself very small. One huge reason for this is that I fee like, if you say you are going to do something, you really need to do it. (I fail at trying to do this too, but at least I try!) It is better to make small goals and actually achieve them than to make lofty goals that you end up ducking out of. (Well, I should say “promises” instead of goals; there is definitely value in “shooting for the moon” so at least you will “reach the stars.” What I’m getting at is that I don’t want to break an actual oath, so I’m not going to make an oath if I don’t think I can keep it.) That said, I also think there is value in getting out of your “comfort zone.” I agree with your friend Jenni that we should do things that scare us (for the purpose of putting ourselves in a position where we are fully relying on God). However, those things don’t have to be rote-discipline-type things. Your fear of saying the wrong thing is a perfect example. For me it is going into a group of non-English speaking people with no translator, knowing that they will probably ask me questions that I won’t understand or know how to answer. That situation really stresses me out, but I just think to myself, “Well, okay. Let’s do this. God has taken care of me the whole time so far, so I just have to trust that He will continue to do so.” I can do stuff like that, but don’t you dare ask me to cut out desserts (much less for 40 days!). If I’m going to do something like that, it needs to have a purpose beyond just the doing of it. I have fasted several times in my life, though never for longer than a day. But, each time I did it, it wasn’t just to deny myself; it was because I was praying for something specific that was really important at the time (well, and I did it for a diet too, but that’s different), and I felt like the experience was very beneficial. Another example is exercise. I am awful at keeping up with regular exercise, but now that I end up having to walk to most places around here, I get exercise without thinking about it. Because there is a purpose to my walking, I actually do it. Taking this concept to the spiritual level, I have found that, even though I can’t bring myself to keep up with regular prayer and Bible reading, because I have put myself in a stressful life situation, I do find myself praying and picking up the Bible because I can tell I really NEED it and CRAVE it. Don’t think that I do this all the time or anything, but when I DO do it, it is more meaningful. Anyway, only you and God know what you should do in your particular situation, but this is my thought process on how these things usually work for me.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Jenni on March 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    I agree with a lot of what you just said…… it reminds me of a quote I once heard. It is in regards to prayer, but could be used for any spiritual discipline, serving, missions, fasting, Bible reading….. “An active prayer life has nothing to do with self discipline, and everything to do with poverty of spirit….realizing that apart from Him, you can do nothing.” When we are truly humble in spirit and wake up realizing that each day I can do no real good, nothing of any eternal value without His Spirit taking over my own, it gives us the desperation we need to spend time seeking Him.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Glenda on April 16, 2012 at 10:10 am

    I just read an article in Guideposts about a woman who had trouble deciding what to give up for Lent. She finally decided instead to “give of herself” for Lent by making sure she did at least one thing each day to help someone. She found it to be a most meaningful Lent period.

    Reply

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