I must admit, despite having ample warning, the season of Lent always sneaks up on me. And every year, in the days before Ash Wednesday, I have to be extra intentional about examining my life for those areas which lack discipline, lest I put it off and find myself in the midst of the Lenten season without properly fulfilling my duty of self-examination and repentance. To be sure, I do not count my shortcomings as being all that unique, nor do I count myself all the more righteous for those times when (by God’s grace) I manage to marginally increase my self-discipline. Yet, it is this very dilemma, the dilemma of our own forgetfulness and tendency to lack discipline, which affirms the great wisdom of Mother Church in establishing this season of Lent for renewed repentance and Faith.
As Bishop-retired Galloway likes to describe, the season of Lent is in this sense a spiritual retreat – a time where we can take a step back and listen to God’s voice, who points us to the areas of our life which prevent us from living rightly before Him. In other words, the Lord reminds us of our continual need for repentance, to draw near to His Son Jesus Christ and so live according to the Truth (with a capital “T”). Beloved, it is my prayer that we would recognize the importance and urgency of sober self-assessment and repentance this Lenten season.
I am reminded of the famous professor of psychology at University of Toronto and clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, who is well known in recent years for an expression he popularized: If you want to change your life, you better start by cleaning your own room first! Speaking to a largely secular audience, Dr. Peterson’s turn of phrase communicates something very true about the human condition: the importance of order and taking responsibility for one’s life. This question is often posed in the course of discussion: How can you expect to change the world, let alone your own life, if you can’t even manage the few things that are in your control? Stop being a victim – instead start by cleaning your room and see how a little self-discipline changes you!
Approaching this Lenten season, my mind was drawn to this way of thinking, as I believe it touches upon a truth we affirm in the Christian life. Because of his background, Dr. Peterson analyzes the issue through the lens of psychology – understanding the balance of chaos and order in the human life, and empowering people to improve their lives by understanding the human condition: that we often have no one to blame but ourselves for our own shortcomings, and that it can be rectified with a healthy dose of self-discipline. Indeed, while true from a secular perspective, the idea of “taking stock” of the things in our own life that we must address is deepened by the Christian understanding of sin and repentance. For the chaos in our lives is a direct result of sin (for which we are directly responsible) because of our fallen nature. And Lent, that long retreat, calls us back to the discipline of honestly evaluating the parts of our lives where sin and chaos have creeped back in. In response, we can make excuses and complain we are a victim, or we can take responsibility, turning to Christ in repentance. The question we must answer is, “Are we cleaning our rooms this Lenten season?”
Turn Away from Sin
We understand repentance as a turning away from sin. In the Greek, we see also the word metanoia – literally a “changing of one’s mind”. Yet, if we are to turn away from sin, we must rightly understand the Truth to which we turn. For if we merely feel bad our wrongdoings and fail to set our hearts and minds on knowledge of the Truth, then in short order we will slide back into old patterns of sin. The Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians lays out the Truth plainly: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
With this exhortation, Paul gives us one of the most concise explanations of Gospel mystery – Christ’s perfect sacrifice, once for all on the cross, for the sins of the whole world. Christ is the Truth, and the Truth is beautiful! God became man, the perfect man, to live a sinless life, in order to be a perfect and sufficient sacrifice for sin. And in His marvelous work on the cross, the greatest transaction of all time took place: At once, Jesus took upon Himself all the sins of the world, and at the same time imputed His righteousness to us.
By grace, through faith in Christ, our sins are gone! As the Psalmist reminds us, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103:12). How far is the east from the west? It is an immeasurable distance. When we repent and trust in Christ, our sins are so far removed, we can’t even see them anymore! And this Grace never runs out – it is available to us whenever we repent of our sins. This is the beauty and the mystery of the Cross: On the one hand, we as sinners (myself especially) make the same mistakes over and over again, but every time we repent in faith, Christ is ready with fresh grace to forgive us; On the other hand, the same grace offered to us in the forgiveness of sins is the very thing which enables us to grow in the act of repentance. Jesus Christ, in forgiving our sins, helps us “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), which the author of Hebrews reminds us. We all know those sins in our lives – the ones we pretend to ignore – which stick to us like pine sap on our hands. The disciplines of Lent remind us that we (throughout the whole year) must return to Christ time and again to wash those sins away and remove them far from us.
We affirm, then, the immeasurable importance of repentance and self-discipline in the Christian life as it pertains to our own salvation. But there is another important reason for self-examination: our Gospel witness. Hear again what Saint Paul tells the Corinthians: “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry” (2 Corinthians 6:3). In this passage, Paul is defending and establishing his ministry as an Apostle, to which he bears witness through steadfast faithfulness amid every kind of trial and affliction. Indeed, Paul asserts that spiritual discipline makes sure that “no fault may be found” with his ministry. We should then ask the question: What would cause fault to be found with our own ministry? Nothing less than the sins which most afflict us.
Internal Health and External Witness
To my fellow Christians, whether you know it or not, there are people in your life who look to you as an example of the Christian faith. And there are still others who have put their faith in Jesus Christ because of your faithful Gospel witness. There are people you won’t meet in this life, who might thank you in the next, for the example you set in faith, which pointed them to the cross of Jesus Christ. So, when we exercise spiritual discipline and repentance, we do it not only for ourselves, but also for anyone who may be helped by our Christian witness.
Both our own spiritual health and witness to the Gospel are intrinsically linked. And within this reality is a paradox the world cannot understand. We take stock of our lives and change the things that are unseen – not for the purpose of being seen by others, but precisely because we will be seen by them. Jesus gives us a warning in Matthew’s Gospel: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). If we act righteous in order to look good, then we miss the point! Jesus hits the nail on the head here, telling us, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). This is exactly what the world wants you to do! Our culture prizes performative virtue signaling for social media, which is nothing more than an empty façade. By contrast, our repentance begins in secret, in the recesses of the heart which only God knows. We improve our secret, sinful lives not to make righteousness public, but because we live our lives out in public.
We affirm this truth as we begin our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes. The ashes are not for the sake of a social media post – they are a mark of our mortal nature and our standing before God. The ashes are symbolic of a reality that is already present in our lives – our affirmation that we are helpless, mortal creatures in need of a Savior. And we should so be marked by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, all the days of our lives.
So let us take stock and clean our rooms during this long Lenten retreat. May we examine ourselves and commit to repenting of those sins which cling to us so tightly, and better submit to the spiritual disciplines we neglected this prior year. May we do so not only for ourselves, but for all those who will look to us as an example. And may we do so with urgency, for there is no time to procrastinate! Paul urges us, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). “Blow a trumpet in Zion,” the prophet says of God, “sound an alarm on my holy mountain!” (Joel 2:1). We may procrastinate and allow the disciplines of Lent to surprise us every year. May God give us new and contrite hearts to see the urgency of spiritual discipline, that we will not be surprised by the Lord at his coming again. Amen.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail