It has been said that suffering will either drive you like a nail into the love of God or away from the love of God. You will become bitter or better. This is the invitation of the Christian life and specifically the season of Lent. Be driven into the love of God. Be driven into the reminder that Jesus shares in our sufferings and we get to share in His. And in doing so, become more like Him.
“Lent” actually comes from an Old English word meaning “spring.” And spring both communicates a pattern and a picture of Lent that portrays this invitation to meet Jesus in suffering.
The Pattern of Lent
The season of Lent takes place in the spring, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, and the season centers around 40 days of sharing in the sufferings of Christ in light of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Like the season of spring itself, Lent follows a pattern of time and movement. There is a pattern of fasting, prayer and giving.
There’s a popular meme that says, “This year for Lent, I’m just giving up.” This is actually a helpful posture: “I can’t. But Christ can.” This is the desperate posture that suffering actually brings. Many times when we participate in Christ’s suffering, it’s in the unexpected moment of grief. But the invitation is also to proactively enter into Christ’s suffering through spiritual discipline. Sometimes the wilderness comes to you, and sometimes you intentionally enter the wilderness.
We aren’t practicing Lent to gain acceptance from Jesus; we already have that acceptance and love.
During Lent, we purposefully join brothers and sisters throughout history and around the world entering the wilderness through rhythms and disciplines. Fasting in order to feast upon Him. Taking away that we might get more of Jesus. Less of us, more of Him (John 3:30). Giving of myself to others because He has freely given so much for me. Christ identified with my suffering, and now I get to identify with His. This is all from a place of acceptance. We aren’t practicing Lent to gain acceptance from Jesus; we already have that acceptance and love. Jesus entered the great wilderness of death for us so that we might know that He is for us (Rom. 8:31-32).
Practically, this means we meditate upon our sin and sadness, but only in a way that cracks open our hearts to the great love of God (Rom. 5:8). We find our life not in the practicing of Lent but in putting our gaze on our Savior (John 5:39). It means we don’t naively turn a blind eye to systemic injustice and corporate evil. If we only meditate on personal brokenness and miss the brokenness around us, we aren’t carrying the heart of Christ (Matt. 9:12-13). If we claim to meet Jesus in Lent, but it only ends with us, we’ve traded the Righteous One for a dead ritual. We also reflect upon the brokenness in such a way that it drives us to a day where brokenness will be no more (1 Thess. 4:13). And all of this is done starting with the model of Jesus and the gospel. We practice not to proclaim our own righteousness (Matt. 6:1-4) but to proclaim His. That’s what we do in this season.
The Picture of Lent
For most people, spring is the time when the light and and brightness of days begin to lengthen, as winter passes and new life bursts forth. And like the season of spring, Lent marries both a sense of brokenness and hope. In fact, many Christians, especially in Eastern traditions, have historically called Lent a “bright sadness.” This paradox conveys the idea that on one hand we feel the sorrow, weight and sadness of Christ’s suffering, death and burial, and on the other hand we feel the great hope, light and brightness of Christ’s victory.
If the 40 days of fasting and feasting are the pattern we take to be driven into the love of Jesus, then bright sadness is the picture we carry throughout Lent to be riveted by His love. This is because the picture isn’t just of Lent but also the good news of the gospel and the Christian life. For the Christian, our sufferings and sorrows can’t be detached from the resurrection of Jesus, even as we wait to celebrate Easter. As it has been said before, the opposite of sadness isn’t joy, it’s hope. Like Paul wrote, as believers we are “sorrowful, yet rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).
Jesus steps into our stories and our suffering so that we might step into His.
In our “lenting,” the tension of both the sadness and the brightness has to be upheld. And as we do this, we are tapping into the mystery of seeing Christ step into our suffering so that we might step into His. To think that God—in Jesus—enters our suffering and can identify with our suffering is a staggering and deeply comforting reality. As Beth Moore says, “He knows that it’s scary to be us.” And at the same time, when you read ancient Christian literature, you begin to realize Christians have been staggered not just that Christ shares our sufferings but that we get to share in His.
Jesus steps into our stories and our suffering so that we might step into His. As some of our African-American brothers and sisters sang during slavery, “My brother, want to get religion? Go down in the lonesome valley. Go down in the lonesome valley. Go down in the lonesome valley. And meet Jesus there.”
Or the apostle Peter said it like this, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…” (1 Pet. 4:13).
And then the apostle Paul, “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).
In our sufferings, we get to meet Jesus. And in our lenting, we get to intentionally meet Jesus, whether we are in the valley or on the mountaintop. To meet Jesus there. To know Him. To know His power and glory. Now this is one of the beautiful pictures of Lent. Not only that Christ is identifying with us in temptation and suffering but that we are invited to participate with Him. That’s both the pattern and picture of the season.