During Lent, it is common for people to commit to giving up luxuries as a form of repentance. We abandon the things we enjoy like sweets, soda or $5 cups of coffee. Others will temporarily abandon their vices -- only to return to them, ironically enough, on Easter Day. Hooray! Jesus is risen so now I can smoke, swear and get on social media again.
Not so fast.
Yes, Lent is supposed to be a time of reflecting on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert, enduring temptation and trial, before his public ministry. Traditionally, it is a time when Christians seek justice toward God in prayer, toward themselves in fasting, and toward their neighbor in almsgiving. But one of the major problems that has developed in Christianity, as I see, is that we've somehow perpetuated the notion that we only need to do these things 40 days out of the year.
That simply isn't true. The purpose of Lent is to further prepare us, through a specified, intense time period, to actively live lives that draw us nearer to God and the realization that we presently need God in our lives. In short, it is a training period. Cue the "Eye of the Tiger" background music.
At this point you might be thinking: "Well that just seem exhausting." Well truthfully, nobody practicing Christianity ever said that following Jesus was easy. But it certainly is worth it, and I don't just mean in the next life, I mean right now.
Take a prompt from an 8-year-old. You may have seen the late-February report from CBS news about the young boy from Toledo, Ohio, who found $20. Excited from his find in the Cracker Barrel parking lot, he joyfully followed his family into the restaurant. He proceeded to dream of all that he could buy with the newfound bill.
Then, upon entering the dining area and surveying the people inside, the boy decided to do something else. Whether he realized it or not, he decided to follow Jesus. He wrote a little note, wrapped it around the $20 bill and delivered it to a soldier seated across the room. The note enclosed said, "Dear, soldier -- My dad was a soldier. He is in heaven now. I found this $20 in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It's your lucky day! Thank you for your service." Overwhelmed by the gesture, the soldier later reported that he looks at the note every day and that it has provided him a "lifetime of direction" as he plans to now perpetually pay it forward.
This child made a lifelong impact on another person's life. It might not have been easy for him; he had to sacrifice something that he wanted. But the result was worth it.
I would concede that sanctification often doesn't feel easy. Sometimes it feels down right difficult. But, if we commit to the justice that Christ calls us to, we not only make the world a better place but we ourselves also become better people.
You see, by participating in Lent you haven't merely entered into a menial ecclesiastical task. You've instead committed to making the world a better place and dedicated yourself to becoming a better person. In your thoughts and your actions, in the creativity that God has ascribed to you as a unique and wonderfully made individual, you've committed to proclaiming that you'll live healthier, be a better friend and neighbor, and seek to more faithfully follow God. And while that menial sacrifice may seem unimportant in the moment, if continually pursued, it can, right now, make a world of difference.
The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com.