The Season of Lent: It’s Not About Self-Help

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

–Hebrews 12.1-3, 14 (NIV)

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

–Luke 18.9-14 (NIV)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for confession, self-denial, and repentance. To many in our contemporary society, Lent has become something of an anachronism because many do not see the big deal about confessing sin. In an “I’m OK, you’re OK” culture, we have forgotten that sin is terribly grievous in God’s eyes, that if something is not done about it, our sin will continue to separate us from God’s Holy presence and keep God and humans alienated forever. As the writer of Hebrew’s tells us in the passage above, without holiness, no one will see God.

For you see, God is perfect and holy. God cannot and will not allow any kind of evil to live in his direct presence. Unless something is done to take away all the evil and sin that remains in fallen humans, we have no hope of ever living in God’s direct presence. And while at first blush this may seem harsh to us, if we think about it seriously, it should make sense. Whatever your conception of heaven and the New Creation is, do you really want to spend an eternity being plagued and bedeviled by evil? Do you really want to spend an eternity living with your own foibles, fears, and weaknesses, not to mention the foibles and weaknesses of others?

But here is the rub. Because we are so thoroughly infected with sin and brokenness, we have no hope of fixing ourselves. We have no hope of ever living forever in God’s Holy presence because there is nothing we can do to eradicate our fallen human condition. Sure, we can decide to change our ways and work hard to do good things to and for others, but that is not going to help us because we will inevitably fail. Our sin still remains in us and we remain thoroughly infected. We have an inoperable cancer and no human power can change this. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how many New Year’s resolutions you’ve kept over the years. Ask yourself about all those good intentions you’ve had that have fallen by the wayside. Ask yourself why no self-styled utopias ever succeeded. If you are honest with yourself, you will not like the answers you give.

This is what the Bible calls the human condition. You can read about it in Genesis 3. It is not a pretty picture nor do we like to think about it because frankly, it is very painful to do so. But not thinking about it or trying to wish away our condition does not change reality. Sooner or later each one of us will get smacked in the face with our own mortality and the mortality of those whom we love, and when that happens, the awful truth sinks in and the hopelessness that ensues can overwhelm us. Without some radical help, we and our loved ones are toast. We have no hope for the future beyond the living of our days and that is a terrible, terrible thought to contemplate.

But take heart and hope because God has some very Good News for you. It’s called believing what God has done for you in Jesus. Jesus the divine surgeon can operate on you and rid you of the cancer of your sin that must otherwise keep you permanently separated from God, the Source and Author of all life. The Christian faith does not advocate self-help. Far from it. No, the NT advocates putting your whole hope and trust in what God has done for you in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. In his death, Jesus has borne the just punishment for our sins and because of his death, we have been made holy in God’s sight. I’ll let better minds than me explain how precisely this works; I confess I do not know how precisely this works other than it does.

Does this mean we sit back, relax, pop a beer and let Jesus do all the work in our lives? Hardly. When we put our faith in Christ, it changes us. He comes to us and lives within us, changing us over the course of our life. We still have to struggle and sweat in our faith journey, but we are confident that Jesus is helping us become the beings he created us to be. Having the Spirit living in us also reminds us not to make life about us. Instead we make it about loving and serving God for making it possible for us to live in his direct Presence forever.

In other words, having Jesus living in us keeps us humble. He reminds us of our need to come to him each day for guidance and strength. He reminds us that if we are to show our love to God in part by our loving service to others, we are going to need his strength. This, in turn, helps us to avoid the myth of self-help or that we can somehow ever be acceptable to God based on our own merits. We realize that we cannot be good in God’s eyes without Jesus’ help and his work on the cross. This keeps us from being like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable above, which is a good thing because it is so easy to fool ourselves into thinking we can possibly be good in God’s eyes based on our own merits.

But that is not true and that is why we have a season of Lent. Lent reminds us of the impossible plight of the human condition. It reminds us about the deadly seriousness and consequences of our sin. It reminds us that we cannot fix ourselves and our fundamental problem of life, that we need God’s grace and mercy to survive. Lent reminds us that we need to confess our sins to God and put our faith in Christ so that we can be truly forgiven. As the psalmist reminds us:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin (Psalm 32.3-5).

Our confession, repentance, and self-denial are necessary for us on a daily basis because they help us keep our minds right, they help us remember our human condition. The cross of Jesus is necessary to give us our present hope for a future and to ensure that living directly in God’s Holy presence is possible.

Repentance simply means we are working hard, with Jesus’ living Presence in us, to turn away from doing the things that separate us from God (think selfishness) and to turn toward those things that are pleasing to God (think selfless love and service to others). Self-denial is all about actively working to put to death those ugly things in us that prevent us from living joyfully in the manner that is pleasing to God. It is not about killing our core personality.

And when we repent, we are assured that God will forgive us because while God’s holy justice will not be denied, we remember that God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and full of steadfast love for his broken and rebellious creatures. This is not unlike parents who continue to love their wayward children who rebel against them. For a poignant and beautiful picture of God’s love for you despite who you can be, read the parable of the prodigal son.

Lent is the season where we get real with ourselves and with God. We acknowledge the seriousness of our sin and we work at putting to death all that is within us that keeps us hostile toward and alienated from God. That is why Lent is all about confession, repentance, and self-denial. It’s not a pretty or fun thing to do, but it is an essential and life-giving thing to do. But as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we are to struggle not as individuals but together as the people of God, the Church. We remember that we are in this together and that God intends for us to draw on each other for help and support as we seek to follow Jesus and be faithful disciples of his.

Lent also reminds us of the wondrous grace, love, and mercy of God manifested in Jesus. It is a time when we get intentional about following Jesus and all that that means to us and to others around us. Lent is a time when we can really focus on getting healed so that we can live our life with meaning, purpose, real hope, and joy. Lent is the time to remember that we really do have a hope and a future made possible by Jesus and him alone.

If you are struggling with things that weigh you down or are looking for life-giving meaning and purpose, then take a chance and give yourself to the God who loves you more than you dare to hope or dream. And if you are already following Jesus, then renew your commitment to him and ask him to help you lose yourself in him so that he can use you to bring the glorious Good News to his broken and hurting world that desperately needs to hear about the wondrous love and mercy of God in Christ.