I read a reflection on the season of Lent this past week and I was struck by what the author said about Lent. She said that Lent “is not holiness boot camp.” (Range, Sharon, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2) That struck me. So often I feel that Christians (myself included) have treated this penitential season as a sort of holiness boot camp. We give up Facebook, chocolate, or swearing for 40 days; or we resolve to put more money in the offering plate, pray more often, or be nicer to our friends for 40 days. Those practices aren’t bad necessarily, but Lent was not meant to be merely a time of self-improvement. Often, we take on our disciplines for the sake of growing into better Christians and being more acceptable to God. At worst, our Lenten practices become a measure of piety that we use to determine who is a better Christian than another person.
“Oh. He is giving up chocolate for Lent? Well, I am giving up all sweets.”
“Oh. She is giving up swearing for Lent? Well, she shouldn’t be doing that anyway. I am so glad I don’t have that problem.”
This is exactly the type of self-righteousness that Jesus warns about in our reading from Matthew. When we view Lent simply as a measurement for how holy we are and how much more pious we are than someone else, then we are no better than the person who sounds a trumpet when they put money in the offering plate or the person who shows off their prayers on the street corners or the person who dirties their faces to prove that they are fasting.
If Lent is not about spiritual self-improvement, then what is this season about? We start Lent today, Ash Wednesday, by acknowledging our own mortality. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We remember that our lives are fleeting and finite. The age of the earth is more than four and half billion years old. Human beings are only 200,000 years old. And if we are extremely lucky and considerably healthy we might live to be 100 years old. What is 100 years stacked against 4.5 billion years of earth history? Or even 100 years stacked against 200,000 years of human history? Without God we are creatures whose time on earth is gone in a blink of an eye. Dust to dust.
Repentance is a major part of the Christian life and we focus on that in this penitential season of Lent, but we often mistake repentance for an act that earns God’s favor. God’s love and grace has already been given to us, but we often lose sight of that truth. We fall into a belief that we are not worthy of God’s love or that our problems are too big for God to handle. Repentance is the act of turning around and seeing God’s faithful love for us and facing the world and its great challenges with that love informing and supporting us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazi regime and was killed for his convictions, spoke about what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He writes,
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a [person] will gladly go and self all that [one] has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods… it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves [their] nets and follows him.
Costly grace… is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a [person] [their] life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon [God’s] Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
We are not the ones that make grace cheap or costly. We lose sight of how costly that grace is and that affects our lives. God gave everything to be with us and will stop at nothing to redeem us. Our fear of sin, death, and the devil cause us to lose sight of the great love of God given through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle, Paul, urges the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” He is urging them to remember the costly graces that God bestows and that the steadfast love of God makes a difference in the face of our fears and losses. Through God-given faith, we may not be spared from the effects of sin and death, but we are given the assurance that God’s love is supporting us and giving us new life. Paul writes, “…we have commended ourselves [to God] in every way; through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…”(2 Cor. 6:4-5). Despite the struggles and loss that we and Paul experience, God has promised to remain faithful to us. Paul continues, “[We have been commended to God] in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10). Knowing the costly grace and love of God makes all the difference.
I met with someone recently who is a long-time member of Al-Anon, the support group for people who are coping with loved ones addicted to alcohol. This individual shared a story with me about a woman whose partner was an abusive and angry alcoholic. Her partner told her on more than one occasion that if she went to another Al-Anon meeting, he was going to kill her dogs. How can a person find the strength to keep going while living with someone who makes threats like that? How can that person find peace? She was able to find strength and peace because she was aware of the closeness of her Higher Power. She believed that God loved her deeply and would stop at nothing to be with her and give her strength and hope. For her, the awareness of God’s care for her gave her the strength to keep attending Al-Anon meetings and get to a better place.
Whatever practices you take up or whatever things you abstain from this penitential season, do not do them thinking that they help God favor or love you a little bit more. Take on the practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer to help you remember God’s faithful love for you. When God reveals God’s love and costly grace for you, you see the world in a new way. You see the world with repenting eyes as you witness God’s abundant mercy in the face of sin and death, and you will feel the call to participate in God’s activity of bringing forgiveness and life.