Thoughts By: Ben Pickett
I have to admit for the longest time I thought the idea, or the word, “repentance” had to do with only two things: something that happened to people when they became Christians (in other words, at their conversion), or it was something people in really big trouble in their spiritual walk needed to do.
Repentance, however, means a great deal more than the limiting images I gave it years ago. A unique feature of humanity is that we are the only part of nature that can be changed. The ancient church understood this and as early as the fourth century designated the forty days preceding Easter as a special season of the year for the church to practice repentance (or metanoia – a change of direction). The church would engage in a time of prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines that would call believers to take an honest look at themselves, understand what they see, and then take action to do something about it.
The forty days is called “Lent,” or the “Lenten Fast,” and the first day of Lent is known as “Ash Wednesday,” the dies cinerum, the “day of ashes.” Around the 8th century, this first day of Lent took on special significance. The ashes used for the service were taken from burned palm leaves remaining from the Palm Sunday service of the previous year. The priest would mark the forehead with the sign of the cross while quoting scripture, in part, from Genesis 3:19: Remember man that “thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In the receiving of ashes, we remind ourselves of our own brokenness and dependence on God.
Like hitting the “re-set” button on our spirituality, lent invites us to be both intentional and practical as we look inward at the state of our hearts in relation to God. Here are three ways to consider what this might look like in your own life.
Attentiveness to our Thoughts
With what do we fill our minds? Think about the substance, the content of your thoughts. In prayer, ask God to help dispel all the sinful things that cloud or corrupt your mind. When reading Scripture or other good material, don’t read it to acquire knowledge, but as a window into your own experience of God. Mental training means saying “no” to spiritual junk food.
Attentiveness to our Behavior
Fasting is most commonly associate with Lent because it is a discipline that teaches us to devote time to God that might otherwise be given to eating, or shopping, or something online. Fasting is not done for show, or to lose weight. It is about teaching ourselves to depend on God in concrete ways. Fasting brings clarity of mind and exposes our often hidden addictions and sinful commitments. Our thoughts, behaviors, and our relationship with God are intimately connected. By training our bodies, we learn to train our mind. When we train ourselves in fasting to prayerfully resist the smaller sinful decisions in our lives, we equip ourselves, by God’s grace, to tackle the deeper, more entrenched sinful attitudes and behaviors that may have hold of us.
Attentiveness to our Spirit
Lent provides an opportunity for us to nourish our spirits and ground ourselves more transparently in God. Prayer is essential. Daily reading of scripture (mainly the Psalms) and special prayers help enrich and encourage us. These readings of prayers and scripture are not meant to be an intellectual exercise. Instead they help us identify and remove the sinful passions – the behaviors that distance us from God. Consider this commonly cited prayer from Ephraim the Syrian:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
Finally, consider how certain stories we find in scripture encourage us during this season. In the painting above drawn from a reflection on the Temptation of Jesus in Luke 4, the artist (Limbourg) invites us to look on the temptation story in a different, and personal, way. Produced in 1416, the image shows Christ resisting the temptations of the devil on top of a beautiful medieval castle. The castle is representative of all who find themselves in positions of authority. The temptations show that we, too, are in danger of succumbing to these same temptations. We draw strength knowing that Jesus resisted the impulse to pride and self-promotion and the allure to all the luxuries of power and authority in the world.
May God bless you as you enter this important and life-changing season of lent. May you embrace the power of God to bring healing, to fill your heart with his love, and draw you closer to Him.