“…God loves a cheerful giver” (NRSV, 2 Corinthians 9:7)
Lent is popularly looked on as a grim and dreary season which one grins and bears for six weeks. But nothing could be farther removed from the true spirit of Lent, and the spirit in which one’s Lenten rule is kept is as important as the rule itself.
Let us consider first the wrong approach to Lent. According to this it is a disagreeable season which might well be quietly dropped. But as there is no prospect of that happening, one can’t ignore Lent altogether without feeling a defaulter or even a fraud. So the best thing to do is to compromise by observing it with the minimum of discomfort. Therefore the main part, or indeed the whole of the Lenten rule will be the giving up of some pleasure.
According to this way of thinking, Lent is a cheerless affair, relieved by the fact that it only lasts six weeks.
The principal result, and therefore the principal merit of such a Lenten rule, if it is kept without being broken, is to heighten one’s opinion of oneself and of one’s will power; and at Easter one will be able to enjoy with all the greater relish the pleasures which have been foregone.
Needless to say, that is the wrong way to keep Lent – wrong both because it is so negative and limited, being confined to just one aspect of self-denial, and also because Lent itself is regarded as something to be suffered with resignation rather than as an opportunity of cheerfully offering something to God.
Self-denial, in the narrower sense of the term, merely means going without something, and important though that is, it is even more important that we should do something positive as well. So Lent is a time to go out of our way to give something of ourselves to God.
First, there is our devotional life, including in particular the regularity of our daily prayers and the frequency of our Communions. We can add to our times of prayer by coming into the church during the week and kneeling before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and we can increase the number of our Communions. But we must beware of making quantity a substitute for quality.
So Lent is an opportunity to overhaul our rule of life; to say our ordinary prayers better as well as regularly, and to prepare for our Communions with greater care.
We should not approach this as a mere duty the performance of which will improve us. That may well be its result but it must never be its motive. For when we come to God we have to look away from ourselves and towards him, and in this way instead of spending our time on ourselves we shall be giving it to him.
In our everyday life we all know the difference between a present given grudgingly because one is expected to give it, and a present which is freely and gladly given as a token of affection. So what we do during Lent in our prayers and in our worship should express our love for God.
Besides offering our spiritual faculties to him, we should also offer our capacity to think. In the ordinary way we give our minds to much that is trivial, and Lent is an opportunity to turn our minds to God in a worthwhile and purposeful way. So we can include in our Lenten rule the reading of some book on the Christian religion which will deepen our devotion to God or give us a surer and clearer grasp of the Christian Faith; or, if we prefer we could read through St Luke’s Gospel.
And thirdly, there is the exercise which is pre-eminently associated with the observance of Lent, namely self-denial.
Self-denial in its widest sense means dealing in a practical and effective way with our lower self for that is the real obstacle to our personal relationship with God. And so we have to say ‘No’ to our lower self in order to prevent it from ousting God and taking his place in our hearts. It is a matter, therefore, of cracking down on any tendency within oneself to self-assertion and of cultivating an inner detachment from those material pleasures and possessions to which one’s lower self is so naturally and readily attached.
Such things are the thorns in the Parable of the Sower with which Our Lord represents the cares of the world and the delight in riches and the pleasures of life which choke – and choke very effectively – any real relationship with God.
Self-denial, therefore, will also include the disciplining of our bodies; for the complete person is soul and body and we cannot in practice separate the two. Each reacts on the other. For example, if we are tired we become less patient or tolerant. But the object of self-denial and self-discipline is not the selfish one of developing a strong and independent character of which one can be proud, but to remove formidable obstacles to one’s life with God and to one’s inner dependence on him. And it can be of value only if it serves to make us more useful to God. It is a matter of making our lower self our servant so that we in turn can become faithful servants of God.
St Paul compares this process to the training of an athlete in preparation for the games held at Corinth every two years. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things;” he wrote to the Christians in the city, “they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one” (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 9:25). It is worthy of note that the Corinthian Games, to which Paul was referring, formed part of a pagan religious festival in honour of Poseidon, the god of the sea. The training of the athletes, therefore, like the contests themselves in which they competed, was not concerned with their physical fitness as such nor only with the fame which victory would bring them. Their real object was to honour the god Poseidon by their achievements in the stadium.
And so our self-denial this Lent should be undertaken not merely with the limited aim of strengthening our will power, but rather that by thus increasing our ability to resist temptation, we may offer ourselves more fully to Our Blessed Lord and so do him greater honour.
So let there be nothing grudging in the way we keep this Lent. Let us be generous to God with our devotion and our self-denial – for God loves a cheerful giver.