Q “Every year, I have good intentions about making Lent meaningful. But every year I seem to fall short. What are some ways I can deepen my Lenten experience and stay on track?”
Perhaps 25 years ago, Peter Egan wrote a column in the car magazine “Road and Track” titled “Murphy’s Law in the Garage.” It was a wry look at all the things that go wrong with amusing — or alarming — consistency, depending on one’s point of view. Among his observations: “Any toolbox you can lift will be missing the one tool you need.”
Adapted for Lent, we might say: “Any Lenten resolution you can keep without fail is not what you really need to work on.”
Physical fitness is assessed by strength, endurance and flexibility. The same can be applied to spiritual fitness. Forty days is a long time; what we might have the strength to do in short bursts often proves inconsistent long-term; and some things come easier for us than others. Sincere attempts at improving as disciples of Jesus reveal where we grow weak, give in and struggle with change.
This would be discouraging if Lent were simply a self-improvement program, in which we honed our own virtues and sought our own ends. Because Lent is instead a penitential season that opens us to God’s healing grace, we may be humbled by our imperfections, but we need never surrender to discouragement.
As a time of preparation to share in the Paschal Mystery, we are united with the whole of that pattern of the cross: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Failing in a truly worthy Lenten program or practice, when we are sincerely trying to change, is one of the surest signs that we are engaging the season at its core, so that God may also raise us to a new share in the life of grace.
What we learn from our failures is that we need a Savior, a Redeemer — that on our own, no matter how worthy our goals or how sincere our intentions, we just cannot save ourselves. We need someone stronger, wiser, greater than we are to do for us what we cannot do. That awareness, born from our failures at natural virtue and the insufficiency of our own resources, opens us to grace.
This does not mean we simply give up and put forth no effort at all. St. Paul captures this tension between our effort and God’s grace when he writes: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Cooperating with God’s grace, we recognize both how fragile we are and how enduring God’s mercy is. Failing does not teach us not to try at all, but not to try without God.
Thus our Lenten failures can bring us to the heart of the Gospel message, again in St. Paul’s words: “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).
Lent means most to us when we ask, not “How do I want to change?” but rather, “Jesus, how do you want me to change?” We enter these 40 days relying on God, not our own power. As even Jesus did on the road to Calvary, we may stumble and fall. He humbled himself, even to death on the cross, “but God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9-10) — the name Jesus, which means “God saves.” His name is his mission, and while we, too, may be humbled in this season, we need never be discouraged or despair.
We fail, but God saves.
Father Tom Knoblach is pastor of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud.