Ultimately, we recognize the season of Lent before Easter not because God demands it of us, not because Christ commanded it to prove our mettle, and not because we must perfect ourselves before we’re worthy of Easter. We observe Lenten practices because they’re good for us.

Most of us are fine with an occasional indulgence of dessert, pizza for dinner, or a late night out with little sleep. If we miss a day of exercise or drink a bit too much wine for a few days, our surprisingly resilient bodies will recover. The deliciousness of food and the enjoyment of an evening celebration with friends are delights of life, and God saw fit to create the world with bountiful opportunities for joy and occasional indulgence. But we know well what would happen if those indulgences were mainstays, the normal daily practices of our ordinary lives. Our bodies would drag with the effects of our choices: bloating, headaches, sluggishness, crankiness, and worse. Keep up those choices, and eventually our bodies would become addicted to excesses and let us know when they demanded more — always more, and more, until we tell our bodies no.

These physical delights, which can so quickly spoil if overused, reflect the fragility of our souls as well; when we indulge our inner lives with the sugars of laziness, complacency, or pride, our innermost selves start to atrophy. In his letter to the early Christians in Corinth, Saint Paul writes, Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So do not run aimlessly, nor do — box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25 – 27). Christ has not called us to a life of ease; we’re called to discipline.

As followers of Christ, if we’re athletes using our gifts, skills, and strengths to aim our lives toward an imperishable prize, a practice like Lent could be seen as a season of intense working out. Like Olympians before the worldwide games, we’re focused, determined, and ready to win. Lent doesn’t earn our place in the game of life, but it makes us more ready for it. As one writer puts it, It’s the spiritual equivalent of choosing to pick up the kettlebell instead of the Chex Mix, and it will have similar benefits to your soul.”

In a world that celebrates indulging our whims whenever we want, to practice the traditions of Lent is countercultural. Welcoming the temporary suffering of Lent is swimming upstream in a culture that prefers to go with the flow. But as Chesterton quipped, to go against the current is to be alive. We can choose to live the paradoxical Christian life because we’ve been given new life in Christ, which gives us the faith, hope, and strength to do so.

Taken from Bitter and Sweet: A Journey into Easter, by Tsh Oxenreider. Copyright © 2022. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon 97408 www.harvesthousepublishers.com

Image: Lucas Kilian, The Repentant Mary Magdalen in a Cave, ca. 1600, engraving, public domain.

Text First Published February 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org February 2024