One of my colleagues recently asked, “What did you give up for Lent?” It was a harmless question, but it triggered some anxiety. Lent is easy enough to explain academically. It is a 40-day season of self-discipline that precedes Easter, a season that culminates in this coming Passion Week. It hearkens back to Jesus’ 40-day fast that paved the way for his ministry. Its purpose is to sharpen our spiritual sensitivies so that we can enter into the darkness of Jesus’ death and the light of his resurrection with heightened acuity. Why the frustration?
Year in and year out, Lent thrusts upon me a truth I would rather ignore – that I am a creature of mixed DNA, which renders me perpetually conflicted. The Apostle Paul sums up the matter concisely: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other…” (Galatians 3:17, NIV, 2011).
Lent invokes a tug-of-war between our better and worse selves—a tug-of-war to which we would otherwise be oblivious. “The flesh” is that part of our sinful selves that salvation has dethroned but not destroyed. Whenever our flesh goes unchallenged, we are at rest—at home in our less-than-noble selves, blissfully unaware of the spiritual apathy that is silently suffocating our souls. And whenever we apply pressure to the flesh, the struggle commences anew.
In the season of Lent (and in Lenten-like moments throughout the rest of the year), we are drawn from the troughs of slumbering indifference toward new peaks of spiritual vibrancy. But this process is not painless, and the route from trough to peak is hardly intuitive. It produces what we could call “Lenten angst” – a phenomenon that occurs whenever we apply pressure to the flesh.
This is precisely the point at which Lent poses its greatest risk. Like the default setting on my Internet browser, my first inclination is to seek to overcome the flesh through my own (fleshly) effort. My friend’s question—actually my visceral reaction to his question—alerted me to my own Lenten angst, which is nothing other than the product of my unwitting (and ill-fated) attempts to will myself to a higher spiritual plane.
Paul recalibrates our spiritual settings when he says, “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). In other words, trust the Holy Spirit to bear the appropriate fruit in your life (cf. vv. 22-25).
Rightly understood, Lent puts us in a space in which we make ourselves available to the ongoing transformative work of the Spirit. It reorients our interest to things spiritual—and challenges us to lean on the Spirit whenever we feel the creep of Lenten angst.
As you enter Passion Week, we encourage you to review what Lent has been like for you. Have you fallen prey to Lenten angst, as Chuck explains? Where have you been relying on muscling yourself into change, and where have you relied on the Spirit?
Enter Passion Week relieved of the pressure to have “gotten Lent right,” and instead focus your gaze on the story of Christ. What do you see freshly when you rely on God to be at work instead of yourself?
Chuck Conniry is Vice President and Dean of George Fox Evangelical Seminary, a graduate school of George Fox University, in Newberg, Oregon. Chuck holds several degrees, including the PhD in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and MDiv from Bethel Seminary, San Diego. He is married to Dianne and together they have three children and one daughter-in-law: Krystal, Matthew (and his wife, Ashley), and Nathan. Chuck loves to write, swim, and ride his Harley. He and his family reside in Sherwood, Oregon.