The Joy Of Lent

Will Willimon riffs on a conversation he once had with a woman who told him, “I’m so glad next week is Ash Wednesday”:

Glad for Ash Wednesday? I pressed for more. She responded, “You don’t know me that well, but I was the victim of sexual abuse by a relative when I was a young teenager. Spent years in therapy trying to get over it. Pop-spirituality and feel-good religion were just no help to me. That’s why I’m glad that we are coming to that time of the year when the church makes us put all the injustice, sin, blood and guilt on the altar and forces us to look at it and let God deal with it.”

Rejoice. It’s Lent. This is when the poor, old, bumbling church courageously reminds us of the joy of letting go of our illusions about ourselves. We offer our lives not to a God with high standards of conduct, but to a God who loves us as we are and forgives the worst in us.

My favorite theologian, Karl Barth, said that “only Christians sin.” He meant that only Christians know the joy of a God who forgives and thus can be frank about their sin. There is a sense in which awareness of God’s grace comes before, and not after, true and honest repentance. The person who doesn’t know a gracious God can never be truly honest about sin.

On Ash Wednesday this past week, Nadia Bolz Weber argued that people who find the first day of Lent depressing “totally don’t get it”:

[I]t’s a refreshing thing we and Christians all over the world do [on Ash Wednesday]. We gather to remind each other of the truth. To remind each other of our mortality.  We tell each other the inescapable truth that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  It’s downright audacious that amidst our societal anxiety about impermanence we just blurt out the truth as if it’s not offensive.  But the thing about blurting out this kind of truth about ourselves … is that after you do it … you can finally exhale.  It’s like the moment when you stop having to spiritually hold your stomach in.

Calling himself “a bastard” and “complete shit,” Giles Fraser admits he takes comfort in reckoning with himself during Lent:

[T]he language of sin and death – both, in Christian theology, the gift of Adam and thus a constituent part of the human condition – are, I think, much more compassionate ways of looking at human beings than the alternative doctrines of continual self-improvement.

This is counter-intuitive, I know. To use the language of sin sounds all terribly judgmental. But as the wonderful novelist Marilynne Robinson puts it in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought: “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms that standards all of us fail to attain.”

Meanwhile, Alice Robb recommends that observers resist broadcasting their abstention intentions:

What are the effects of sharing your goals on Twitter? It’s often assumed that the social pressure of announcing your intentions will compel to you follow through, but recent research suggests that it might actually backfire—and not just by irritating your friends and followers.

For a 2010 paper in the journal Psychological Science, a team of psychologists led by New York University’s Peter Gollwitzer looked at how students’ behavior changed when they shared their goals with the psychologists or with their peers. For the first experiment, Gollwitzer and his team recruited 49 students training to be psychologists. They were told they were participating in a study on the motivation of first-year psychology students, and were asked to write down two goals relating to their coursework. Some expressed an intention to take reading assignments more seriously, for instance, or to get to grips with statistics. For half the students—those assigned to the “social reality” condition—the psychologist conducting the experiment read the students’ intentions back to them. Members grouped into the “no-social reality condition,” on the other hand, were told that the page on which they recorded their intentions was included by mistake and would be thrown away. One week later, the students were brought back to the lab and asked to list the days on which they’d acted in accordance with their stated goals. On average, the “no-social reality” group kept their resolutions on more days than the “social-reality” group.