Sometimes our way to the highest and best is blocked not by bad things, but by good ones. Whatever can I mean by this? Bear with me here. And let me offer a few examples.
We want to show up for work fresh and eager in the morning but seldom manage to. Why? Because we can’t bring ourselves to put down our excellent book and shut off the light late into the night. Here the good blocks the way to the highest and best. Or our doctor tells us we must now finally do something about extra poundage we carry. But our new intentions keep getting broken, first by the friend returning the favor of inviting us out to lunch, then by the coworker sharing birthday cake from her party the night before. Here the good blocks the way to the highest and best. Or we keep meaning to call our sister, who has been on hard times, but we never get around to it because we are so consumed with visiting the pharmacy for our own children or cooking meals for a friend who is ill. Here good things block the way to the highest and best. But why does any of this matter?
It matters because the season of Lent is once again upon us. And understanding what Lent is all about is no mean feat. We are accustomed to hearing from those who give up odd tidbits of affluence–chocolate, pies, potato chips, or the television remote control. But what do those acts really mean? we want to ask. What do they mean for us or to God?
Sometimes we get the impression that if we are willing to sacrifice something we really enjoy, that will surely make God happy. That if we forego something that gives us great pleasure, then ours must be a holy offering unto God. But what does that say about God? Like God’s radiant countenance shines most brightly at human deprivation. Like God will tolerate some happiness on our part, but not too much, mind you. Like Lent is a retributive season of punishment for our comforts and pleasures. Hmmm. I don’t think so.
Jesus did not say, “Pick up your cross.” That would not be good news, but bad news. The bad news that the more we despise ourselves and chasten our flesh, the happier God will be. Jesus did say, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” And the place he would take us is a place of abundance, of delight, of joy. One Protestant confession has it that “our foremost duty is to enjoy God.” By all means, do keep that in mind throughout Lent.
What I want to say is that there is a time and a place to sacrifice something you enjoy. Sometimes lesser goods are occupying the space we might reserve for greater goods. I am suggesting Lent as the season to sift through our priorities. In Jesus’ willingness to go back to Jerusalem and face what he faced, he bypassed many good things. He did so only because he wanted nothing less than the ultimate good. How would we follow him?
Lent is our time to ponder the meaning of sacrificial love as God has revealed it in Jesus. Lent is our time to ask ourselves what sacrifices we might make following in the way of Christ. And yes, it’s true, even our small sacrifices are near and dear to God’s heart. But let’s evaluate them–even the trivial ones–in light of God’s ultimate purposes for our lives.