The Significance of Lent in a Feel-Good Era

I doubt any of us will make it very far into Lent without hearing the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” It is not a bad question; in fact, it is an essential one. Renunciation is a necessary part of our spiritual formation. We all need to “spring clean” our souls. But the invitation to give up things for Lent is so that we can detach ourselves from obstacles to life in Christ, leaving us with “shelf space” in our souls to attach ourselves to things that really matter. Giving up something for Lent is important, but more important is taking up something for Lent.

When John Wesley began the Methodist movement, he launched it with the invitation to “flee the wrath to come.” That was his 18th-century version of asking people to give up something. As a good spiritual guide, he knew that if we are to receive the new life God has in mind for us, we must not try to make it a “spiritual add-on,” or attempt to squeeze it into a life which, truth be told, is already too full and frenetic. Nothing is to be gained by including religious overload on top of everything else. It makes faith soul-wearying, just as our 24/7 world makes us body-fatigued.

Wesley also knew that the fleeing also included moving away from an emotion-driven life, into a willfully-engaged life. On the negative side, emotion keeps us imprisoned in fear and self-doubt. We always feel like we did not do enough, and could always have done more. This puts us on a performance-driven spiritual treadmill that never stops turning. We become strangers to grace.

But on the positive side, emotion can be confusing, an equating of a response to grace with grace itself, and this leaves us falsely to believe that we are godly when we “feel like it,” and ungodly when we don’t. Falling for this, we go in search of feel-good religious experiences rather than the foundational ones that can build life in Christ. We become captives to a “if it feels good, do it” mindset which leaves us addicted to stimulations, even religious ones.

People in Wesley’s day were no different, because they were human—just like us. Recognizing this, Wesley built Methodism on the good foundation of intention; that is, Methodists were people who determined to live in particular ways, not waiting for a feeling to fuel their desire or stopping them whenever a feeling fell by the wayside. In his constitutional document, The Character of a Methodist, he constructed the Christian life (not a denominational life) on five principles: loving God, rejoicing, giving thanks, praying, and loving others. These, he said, are the “marks of a Methodist,” which he made clear are the evidences for any disciple. Methodism was a movement, not a church, and as such it had people in it from various existing churches and people with no church affiliation.

Abingdon Press has given me the opportunity to write a contemporary interpretation of Wesley’s document in a book entitled, Five Marks of a Methodist. Along with a six-video DVD and excellent study guides written by my friend, Magrey DeVega, we have the opportunity in the church today to establish our faith on the same good foundation of willful engagement that Wesley envisioned, and to take ourselves out of the prison of feel-good spirituality. Great themes to explore during the Lenten season.

What we are talking about has everything to do with having a good and complete Lent. For as we move away from an emotion-driven faith into an engaged faith, we are called today—as in every previous generation—to root ourselves in the two great commandments (marks #1 & 5) and then to bridge our love of God and neighbor with joy, gratitude, and prayer (marks # 2, 3, and 4). In this way, we can not only give up unnecessary things for Lent, we can take on qualities of life that can fill us with the Spirit of God in ways that carry us far beyond Lent itself, into a way of life that enables us to be God’s beloved daughters and sons.

 

Steve Harper is a retired theological professor, having taught for more than thirty years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. He is also a retired Elder in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.