There was a story in the news this past week about the pastor of a small church in the mid-Atlantic States. The pastor had urged the members of her congregation to fast from plastics during Lent this year. She explained to her congregation that the conventional penances of Lent are usually rather self-serving. Fasting from fattening foods, alcohol, tobacco, and other such habits benefits oneself, almost exclusively.
The pastor explained to her congregation that in order for Lent to lead to real spiritual renewal, one’s penance is better if it is focused on benefitting others. Hence, she suggested that her congregants fast in order to benefit all of society. Fasting from plastics certainly meets that criterion. Plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic food containers, and the like contribute to the consumption of petroleum products, the accumulation of trash in landfills, and damage to the environment. Fasting from all of that is truly a socially-conscious act.
Lent is too often used as a crutch with which to follow a doctor’s orders, implement a self-improvement program, or introduce a little personal discipline into one’s life. A penance that is little more than an excuse to follow through on aspirations to self-improvement is not really a penance at all. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, one shouldn’t give up for Lent what one ought to give up anyway. It is a misnomer to identify one’s responsibilities as penances.
I agree with the pastor in the news story that a Lenten penance that is entirely self-serving is not a valid penance. Serving one’s own interests is hardly going to lead to conversion; weight loss, for example, is not an act of turning one’s heart and mind toward God unless, as St. Paul wrote, your belly is your god. (Phil. 3:19)
On the other hand, I don’t think that an act such as fasting from plastics quite reaches the level of being an appropriate penance for Lent. It’s not as self-serving as striving for personal improvement, but neither is it an act of repentance. Repentance amounts to allowing God to change one’s life; the changes we make to our own lives might constitute responsibility, but they don’t amount to actual repentance. Today’s Gospel reading provides some insight into what constitutes real repentance.
The story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert concludes in exactly the way that one would expect. The severity of the temptations prompted by the devil don’t diminish the likelihood of the expected outcome; to no one’s surprise, Jesus vanquishes the devil. The fact that the outcome of this event was a foregone conclusion should not prevent us, however, from taking a close look at what it says about temptation, sin, and repentance.
Obviously, Jesus had no need to repent of sin, but the temptations he faced were severe. Luke’s account of the temptation in the desert intends to show us that Jesus did not respond to temptation by a mighty exertion of willpower. Rather, he relied on God. In this Gospel story, both Jesus and the devil quoted Scripture, but Jesus was the only one who understood what he quoted. Jesus understood the meaning of the Scriptures because he had an interpersonal knowledge of God. It was his relationship with God that gave him the ability to resist temptation.
If temptation could be overcome by human willpower, there would be no sin in the world. The persistence of sin is a stark reminder that temptation and sin can only be overcome by God’s power. Like the temptations that Jesus faced, our temptations will yield only to the power of God. The strength of will that we can rely upon is not our own strength but our love for God. What, then, should one choose for a Lenten penance? The simple disciplines of Lent hold profound wisdom.
The season of Lent invites us to fast, give alms, pray, and read the Scriptures. We fast a little and abstain from meat during Lent, not in order to impress ourselves with the strength of our willpower, but in order to feel a little deprivation, to find a little humility, and to rely more on God’s providence. We give alms during Lent, not to impress others with our generosity, but to imitate and experience the compassion that God shows indiscriminately to all people. We give greater attention to prayer and the Scriptures during Lent, not to impress God with our piety, but to grow in our knowledge and love of God.
Giving up what your doctor or spouse has been nagging you to give up doesn’t constitute a real penance. Giving up something in order to benefit others is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go far enough. A valid Lenten penance, and the measure of your faithfulness to the discipline of Lent, is that your knowledge and love for God grows beyond your expectations or goals.