Lent is coming. What are you giving up? This is the question heard across generations as we enter into the season of Lent. Innocent children and their experienced grandparents are curious, both about the question and its answer. We all want to know. What are you giving up?
Before we crawl into one another’s minds, I think it’s worth asking ourselves, why does it even matter? Why is it that this question holds our attention above all others at this time of year? Why are even casual church-goers asking? What is it that we’re seeking as we listen for the answer?
I think, in part, we care because when we voice what we are giving up, we’re sharing a piece of ourselves with the listener. This thing we’ve chosen to let go? It’s important to us. Yes, sometimes that important thing is candy (I’m looking at you, 7-year-old Holly.) But giving up candy at the age of 7 when your birthday falls right in the middle of Lent truly is a sacrifice. That’s how much God mattered to me.
At the time, I didn’t fully understand why giving something up was important. I only knew that it was a rule and I trusted that those who made the rules were right. So I made my choice and set aside candy for 40 plus days.
Except, spoiler, I didn’t. It turns out 7-year-olds don’t have a great deal of willpower and are very good at rationalizing when there is something they really want. Happy candy Birthday to me.
But wait, you say, surely Jesus understood. Withholding candy on your birthday feels more like a punishment than something a loving Jesus would ask.
I agree with you. But, knowing what I know now, I also don’t.
For years I’ve struggled with the sacrifices Lent asks of us. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know. In recent Lents, I’ve picked things up instead of giving things up. Last year, I picked up friends, intentionally scheduling time to be with the people I don’t see enough and sending notes to those too far to join for coffee. The year before, I picked up gratitude, believing that living a life focused on the good is what Jesus wants for us.
I wasn’t wrong, but I also think something was missing when I chose to skip the sacrifice.
These past few years as a Campus Minister have shown me that there is a beauty to sharing in the suffering of others. One of the retreats we run is especially powerful because students choose to be vulnerable and share their struggles and frustrations with one another. They don’t have to tell their stories, but when they do, others are there, ready to receive their pain and walk with them through the darkness until they find the light.
This is what Lent is meant to be. We already know that Jesus sacrificed everything for us. He was here, receiving our pain for years before he gave us the opportunity to receive his. This final offering, his walk through the city with a cross on his back, his final moments on that very same cross, is our only opportunity to suffer along with Jesus. Sharing in this suffering is not important because it hurts, it’s important because it means that, finally, we choose to be in relationship with him.
I’ve watched kids on retreat listen and receive with their entire hearts, but not offer vulnerability in return. They think they are helping by listening, letting the other tell their story, and they are, for a time. But their choice to remain silent, to keep their own pain tucked away down deep, means that the relationship is one-sided. Until they enter into full participation, until they are willing to receive and give life’s stories, they will not be known.
I have been that student. I thought I was strong enough to handle my struggles on my own, that I didn’t need others to help me through the pain. In part, this was because when I looked around, other people’s pain seemed so much greater than mine. But the truth is, we all feel pain in life and everybody’s pain is important for the simple fact that we are loved. Sharing the pain we feel with those we most trust and love is what enables us to journey joyfully through life.
It seems like a contradiction, that to feel joy we must also feel pain. But that is exactly what the church is reminding us of as we celebrate Lent. The joy that Easter morning brings bursts hearts open with love, in part, because we are sharing in the pain that Jesus went through for us in the days prior.
Jesus never wants us to feel alone. That’s why he made the choice to sacrifice. We can make that same choice.Tweet
Lent asks us to sacrifice something, not to punish ourselves, but to remind us that Jesus is there, walking with us through the darkness, towards the light. He wants to be in full relationship with us. He wants us to know that he can receive all that we give him because he knows exactly how we feel.
So, what are you giving up?
This sacrifice Jesus asks of us is meant to be something a little bit difficult. Something that will challenge us through the 40 days of Lent to grow in deeper relationship with him. But I don’t think we need to come up with some external thing like giving up candy or coffee or social media just for the sake of sacrifice.
We already have pain in our lives. Something difficult is always sitting on our hearts, waiting to be shared.
So, this Lent, I’d like to challenge you, and myself, to give up the thing we seem to hang onto the tightest: control.
When we give up just a bit of control in our lives, we give God a chance to enter in where we need her the most. Maybe that means sharing something that’s been weighing on you with a loved one. Maybe that means dropping one responsibility that is taxing your time and using your newly found minutes to walk with others in their pain. Maybe that means forgiving somebody who has wronged you in the past.
Whatever the choice, sacrificing control is not a one-day decision. It is going to take at least all of Lent to realize the value this particular sacrifice brings to life. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be worth it.
The beauty of sharing in one another’s suffering is multi-faceted. Our willingness to share in another’s pain builds compassion. We realize we are not alone. We remember we are loved. We are grateful for the lives we lead and the loves we share.
The added bonus? Holy Week and Easter Sunday become even more powerful when we can see ourselves in the suffering Jesus experienced for us on Good Friday. Jesus wants us to know that he is in relationship with us, that he isn’t just a passive receiver of our worries and struggles and strife, but that he knows exactly how we feel. That’s what he wants for us, that’s what he has always wanted.
Lent begins in two weeks.
What are you giving up?
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We are not meant to journey alone. Come along with me.