In theory, I see Lent as a phenomenal time to exercise self-discipline, grow, work on chipping off some of my rough edges, and do all those good Christian things that I intend to do all year.
That's in theory. When it comes down to it, I find myself revisiting a past that is filled with anxiety about whether or not I have performed well enough for God. Have I done enough for Him to accept me? I think it probably comes partly from being a child of divorce and remarriage and divorce. That messes with your sense of self in all kinds of ways. It would be convenient to blame all of my trouble with God on fundamentalism (and I'm sure some extreme aspects of fundamentalism contributed), but the reality is there were many factors that contributed to my skewed view of the world and of God.
When I got into my teenage years, I was at the height of obsessive needs to be the perfect Christian. My mental image of God was Him up there with a big stick, ready to whap me one if I didn't perform well enough, if I wasn't a good enough Christian. If you had asked me, I would have said that salvation was by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. But that didn't change my feelings
about God, feelings that I never quite matched up to His standard (which of course none of us do, but the truth is that He loves us anyway and sent Christ to restore us to Him in spite of our mess-ups and brokenness). So, during my late teen years, I decided to try hard, to try as hard as I could to be the perfect, submitted to God Christian. I threw away everything I deemed "not pure" (once a person starts obsessing, imagine how much stuff that can be!). I tried to confess every sin, every stray "impure thought." I tried to "hear God's voice" (but I often just heard echoes of my own self-condemning thoughts).
Later, when I read about Martin Luther and how he had been that way too...trying to be the perfect monk and please God in every way, I paid attention. I thought, "This guy knows what I'm going through." But then Luther actually read the Bible instead of taking only the word of the religious authorities of the time. And he read a verse that changed his life. It said, "The righteous will live by faith." In other words, our righteousness or goodness does not come from our good works, but from having faith that God will give us righteousness, stamp us with it, though we do not deserve it. And all this is because of Christ's gift of His life for us. He bridges the gap between what we deserve for our failures and sins and God's desire to be merciful to us.
So...Luther's discovery changed his life. He started letting go of the many ceremonial works that the Church required when he found that many of them were not required in Scripture. He found freedom. And although I knew that salvation was by grace through faith in Christ alone, somehow in seeing this man who had struggled as I had find the message for the first time enabled me to find it as if for the first time. Grace broke out in my soul...maybe not all at once, but in bursts again and again. It was freeing me from my obsessiveness. Freeing me to know that I no longer need to do "one more thing" because Christ has already done all for me.
And then Lent comes around. And as much as the Lutheran Church does not look at it as a time of making ourselves acceptable for salvation, but instead as a time of deepening character and opening our hearts to repentence...still, I find myself hearing in it the old emotional messages of "do one more thing." Maybe I'm just lazy and self-consumed...I suppose that's part of it...but another big part of my resistence to Lent is the desire not to let go of the good news to which I hold for dear life. Maybe someday I will be able to see Lent for what it is supposed to be...but until that time, my participation in the acts of denial it calls for is minimal at best.
This year, instead, I have found myself resonating with the wilderness theme. Lent is not just a time for self-denial, but it is a time for facing up to facts about our human condition of sin and suffering. And so, as some of my deepest brokenness has started to now emerge with the help of a skilled counselor, I am choosing to walk into the wilderness of that pain and just let it be what it is. To face up to it, and by being honest about it, seek to let God heal it.
To me, that is perhaps the spirit of Lent...even if I am not abstaining from desserts or red meat.