Lent is Not About Hating Yourself

Lent is Not About Hating Yourself
Photo by Matt Palmer / Unsplash

As the liturgy says, today we mark the beginning of Lent with the sign of ashes and reminders of our own mortality. Of all the seasons of the liturgical year, Lent is probably the one that comes with the most baggage for the most people. It is often framed as a season of forty days where we think and pray about what awful people we are because our misery will, somehow, cause God to think slightly better of us. God, the great cosmic accountant, will move a few points from the “Sin” column to the “Merit” column in the ledger tracking our lives. And, if we spend enough Lents truly hating ourselves and demonstrating it by depriving and starving ourselves of everything joyful, the gates of heaven might crack open just far enough for us to slip in.

This is the Lent that is and has been preached and taught in so many places for so many generations. It is the Lent that keeps so many people away from church from today until Easter. And, with much love and respect for my sibling preachers and teachers of the faith, it’s wrong. I understand how that line of thinking developed, but it misses the mark.

Lent is not about hating yourself. Lent is not about hating yourself. Once more, because Christians love things in threes: Lent is not about hating yourself. Lent is about learning to love yourself and your neighbour as much as God loves you.

Lent is a season of learning and preparation. Historically, it was the final stretch of preparation for those preparing for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. This was the season when the Church would formally receive them into its full life and give them the most important, foundational prayers and ideas of Christian life. For those already baptized, Lent is a chance for self-examination and to experiment with adjustments to the patterns of our lives. In both cases, the experience of Lent is meant to encourage good stewardship and gratitude. Lent is meant to help us examine our motivations and understand our relationships in light of what God has done for us.

One might see two similar people doing the same thing and think that, because of what we can observe, these are perfectly equal situations. The truth is, they may not be. Our actions are coloured by what motivates our hearts and the relationships that we share with the world around us. Take, for example, two bakers, each sitting down to eat some bread that they have just taken from the oven. Both baked the bread themselves, in similar circumstances, and both seem to be enjoying the fruits of their labour. While eating, the first baker gives thanks to God for a creation filled with sunshine, water, soil, grain, and the creativity of human imagination that allows us to make bread; the network of holy, sacrificial relationships that sustain him. This bread is very good. The second baker, while eating, is pleased to think of how good the bread is because it cost him so little, having swindled the wheat farmer on the price of the grain, not paid his share of the upkeep for the town’s water well, and knowing that, because wheat is in short supply, he’ll be able to sell the rest of the batch for more money than he first thought. Both of these are bakers enjoying the fruits of their labours, but one is motivated by care and gratitude, the other by entitlement and selfishness. In God’s eyes, these are not the same.

This is what Jesus is addressing in today’s passage from Matthew’s telling of the Gospel. Jesus is not saying that you should never pray in public where people might see you. By all means, when you eat in a restaurant, say a prayer of thanks for the food and the work of those who made it. If your desire is to sincerely express gratitude and acknowledge the blessing of food, this is a good and holy thing to do. If your prayer is ostentatiously loud and one arm extended, phone in hand, streaming your profound gratitude to Instagram Live, you may be who Jesus is talking about. Like our bakers, both of these are people who appear to be giving thanks for food, but their motivations are quite different.

When you pray, do it sincerely and in the way that you would if nobody was watching. When you consider your life this Lent, do it sincerely and in the way that you would if nobody was watching. Choose disciplines that are healthy and that will encourage you to grow. If your relationship with food is already fraught and a difficult one, do not make it worse by restricting what you eat this Lent. Hurting yourself is never what God wants. Instead of only looking for things to give up, look also for things to take on that will encourage gratitude and help you grow in holiness. Maybe this Lent is when you begin the habit of spending a few minutes each morning in lectio divina, or centring prayer, or praying the rosary. Maybe this Lent is when you begin a habit of study to find out what lectio divina, centring prayer, and the rosary are. The most helpful practices will be different for each of us, but if we are honest in our examinations, we can always find places to grow in faith, gratitude, and holiness.

If Lent is about gratitude and growing in holiness and preparation, why do we begin on Ash Wednesday with so much confession of sin and a reminder that we’re all going to die one day? If we are to grow in holiness—to become more like Christ—then we must admit that we aren’t there yet. This is not easy and this kind of reflective, inward looking is sometimes uncomfortable, but it is important. If we believe we have no work to do, nowhere to go, then there is no way for God to help us. We confess because if we are to grow, we must acknowledge where we fall short of the mark; we confess because we know that we need God’s help to grow; we confess because we believe that God loves us enough to look past our shortcomings and help us when we call.

We remind ourselves of our mortality—we are but dust and to dust we shall return—as a reminder that our time in this life is limited. We are free to make of it what we will, but however we choose to spend this life, we must remember that it is a blessing and a gift. We can choose to live in gratitude for what we have or in covetousness of what we do not. We can choose to share or hoard what we have received from God. We can choose to live in praise or complaint. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that this life is not forever and that, in Lent, we have the opportunity to reconsider how we choose to spend the time we have been given.

I pray that this season is good and holy, that the seeds you sow over these great 40 days bear much wonderful fruit, and that you walk more closely with God each day. Amen.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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