By Elizabeth Glass Turner –
Sanctification is fun when it’s under our control.
Out of the corner of our eye, we have peripheral awareness of how close to being faith consumers we really are. We choose to go to a conference so we can grow spiritually. We choose to show up to Bible study so we can grow spiritually. We choose to read a book so we can cry or become more efficient or grow spiritually.
We choose the parameters of our growth. Where we next discern/feel/think that God is leading us. What we will “give up” for Lent. The solution is perceived as whatever antidote to lukewarm faith fits the bill. I’m not sure the problem is lukewarm Christians, though. I think the problem is more the insidious mindset that is entangled in our approach to faith: that we set the table, invite the guests, and choose the menu of our own spiritual growth. That we’re in charge. That we can choose what outcomes we want to see in our spiritual life. That we control how we want to be made Christlike.
If you can choose what to give up for Lent, you’re living in a place of blissful abundance. Don’t take it for granted. Years back during Lent several areas of life imploded at once. In the wake of the economic collapse in 2008, there was a lot of scarcity, especially in certain areas of the country. My household was affected directly, and I remember writing a short reflection including the comment, “What do you give up for Lent when you’re already in a season of scarcity? What does fasting look like when the cupboards are pretty bare?” Lent had changed from practices I chose and controlled to something outside my control, and I didn’t like it.
God had allowed my chosen self-denial to be replaced with real desperation.
It was awful, and there’s no good way to spin or market it.
It hadn’t really occurred to me before what fasting sounded like to people who struggled to afford groceries, or who waited for their food stamps to be refilled. One day during that time — when the news was full of stories of foreclosures, whole subdivisions emptied, when the rust belt was contracting and people moved across the country away from their lifelong hometowns in order to find work — I came across a story of a humiliated woman who drove a luxury car to the food bank she used to donate to. In desperate tones she explained a paid-off, reliable vehicle was one of the only decent assets she had left and it didn’t make sense to trade it in for a cheaper but possibly less reliable car. But that meant that she was driving to the food bank in shiny German engineering.
Before the housing market crisis and Wall Street meltdown, if this woman had chosen to live on a strict budget, she would have been living in self-denial; it’s the removal of options that leads to desperation, no matter how well-resourced or well-connected you’re accustomed to being. Sometimes we instinctively recoil from people going through hard times, as if back in our minds is a hidden, primitive instinct to label tragedy or suffering “unclean.”
How did God let me learn about what Lent looks like when circumstances careen out of control? Several times over the years something would happen – why around Lent? – completely out of my control.
I’m trying to be pious and become Christlike, God. Why won’t you let me?!
In 2017, I had a completely unforeseeable health crisis and after misdiagnosis and falling asleep night after night praying I would wake up the next morning, eventually had emergency surgery and a painful recovery.
That’s a bit more “from dust you come, to dust you shall return” than I meant, God.
In 2018, my husband was stricken with a serious set of grave symptoms that left him on bedrest all winter. I joked that I was fasting from certainty. It wasn’t that much of a joke. Finally, he found relief in the spring.
Well, someday I’ll get back to a normal Lent.
In 2019, his symptoms returned and relief was elusive for over six months. Again, a Lent full of doctor appointments, insurance arguments, hours spent on hold, notes documenting symptoms scribbled down.
Will I ever get back to a normal Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?!
To proclaim that Jesus is Lord means this: I won’t always get to decide how or by what means I grow spiritually. What does the fruit of the Spirit look like when a doctor’s office receptionist is callous, flippant, or rude? What does it look like to be Christlike when you’re grieving lost opportunity due to difficult-to-diagnose chronic illness? What does joy look like when you realize your kids will be spending part of their spring break accompanying a parent to another physician appointment?
None of this fits on the brochure for “Christianity: Come Join Us! Really, It’s Not that Bad!”
I can’t guarantee you stability in this life. I can’t guarantee you won’t face tragedy. I can’t guarantee you won’t experience mind-numbing grief.
I can witness to the goodness of God, though.
I can, and will, bear witness to the power of Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
I can worship God from inside the blasting, scorching furnace, while evil asks, “Didn’t I put three people in there? I see a fourth man, and he looks like the Son of God.”
If I let go of the outcomes I hope for, I can grab onto the person of Jesus.
Jesus is Lord, and nothing in heaven or hell, nothing on earth or out past Pluto, no entity or circumstance can erase the goodness of God. Jesus is Lord and victory belongs to him even when I don’t get to choose the battle.
Please God, I’d like to go fight in that battle over there.
“This is what I have for you.”
I’m so much better over there, you gave me gifts for it! I’m sure that’s where you need me.
“I need you here.”
That doesn’t make sense.
“No, it just doesn’t make sense to you.”
It turns out getting up and responding to altar calls is pretty good practice for the much harder business of following Jesus in the dark.
There will be times you get to choose and pursue ways to grow spiritually. There will be times you are thrown into a whirlwind, into a vortex, and forced to respond.
In all things, Jesus is Lord, and nothing can force us to stop testifying to the goodness and power of Jesus Christ, whether we like our circumstances or not.
Elizabeth Glass Turner is the managing editor of Wesleyan Accent (wesleyanaccent.com). This article first appeared on ArtofHoliness.com.