Chocolate. Coffee. Social Media. We all have our go to fastings for the season of Lent, now thrust upon us. It might be the same every year—which lends a sense of comfort to this generally uncomfortable season. After all, if we have finished the fast in the past, we know we can walk this road again. I write this confessionally, for I have done the exact same thing. The 40 days of Lent have been nothing more than a time where my minds was filled with the longing for that which I had chosen to given up. Every day of fasting was seen in the sole context of drawing closer to the re-introduction to that indulgence. And at Easter, the glory of the resurrection is accompanied by the gluttonous feasting of that which I have gone without.
But the things is, Lent isn’t actually about the outward feats of abstinence that we take on. Every year at Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus highlight the discipline of secrecy for our spiritual lives. Jesus points to the reality that what occurs in our hearts and souls are of more importance than any outward show.
Similarly, we hear the prophet Joel beckon to us with the continuous call to return to The Lord. The disciplines of Lent are to be more inward than outward. “Rend your heart and not your garments,” continues Joel, “return to God for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and bounding in love.”
I must confess that when I think about rending garments, I often have in mind the image of Clark Kent, racing down the alley way after being called into righteous action. He grabs his shirt and forcefully rips it away, only to expose the superman that lies underneath. It seems to me that this is what our contemporary world says about our Lenten disciplines. They are spiritual feats of strength that we muscle through. The world tells us that at the end of it all, we get to go back to regular life, but this time with a sense of pride. We can arrive at the other end of Lent and point to our accomplishments saying “Look how super I have been!” or “Look at what I have done!’
If this is the case, then what’s the point? We should be challenged with the question, “How does giving up chocolate/coffee/social media actually draw me closer to God in the first place?”
If we rend our garments and not our hearts, at the end of Lent all we are left with are torn clothes. Nothing will change in our lives. There is no amendment of life, no transformation, no deepening in our walk with God. And thus when the season of Lent is done, we simply live as we once did. Our lives, once again, become defined by chocolate, or coffee, or social media. Or, if we have decided to take something on—like gratitude, or prayer, or Bible reading—then the ending of Lent marks the ending of these disciplines. Because outward disciplines, as good as they are, when linked only to a certain period of time will always fall away once that time frame has drawn to a close.
But if we rend our hearts then the inner formations occurring via our disciplines are long lasting. We become transformed in the presence of God and our life with God becomes renewed. Thus the season of Lent is more about our hearts than our stomachs, or computers, any of the outward things that we choose to rend from our lives. God calls us to rend our hearts, to spread them wide before God so as to expose our hidden lives. We rend our hearts and pour ourselves out before our Lord, declaring to God in raw honesty our frailty, our need, our fears, our prides.
We are called to spend the season of Lent looking deep within. Could this by why Jesus finishes his discussion on prayer and fasting by talking about the stuff we hoard? His words regarding the secret deeds of piety, the necessity of intimate prayer, and they type of fasting that is more about internal communication with God than outward signs flows directly into his oft quoted statement, “wherever your treasure is there lies your heart.”
So we rend our hearts.
I’m not suggesting that our outward observances are bad or wrong. They definitely have a long standing tradition in Christian spirituality. But the thing is, outward fasting is beneficial only when it points to deep inner change. At the end of the Lenten process we should be markedly different. We should not feel beaten up, or that we have just gone through a 40 day boot camp of religiosity. We should not feel weary. We should feel renewed in our relationship with God. We should feel that our life with God has changed, has grown, has matured. And most importantly, we should feel excited about living a life of resurrection.
May God bless you as you go through this time of rending hearts. May God bless you in all your outward observances, but may those actions only serve to point to a deeper discipline, and a deeper blessing, as you rend your heart before God, and hold more tightly to the Saviour.