It has been a few years — fourteen, now that I think about it — since we were in a church that celebrated Lent. We attended an Episcopal church in town back then and enjoyed it very much. It was there that we learned something of the observance of Lent, that forty-day period of personal preparation leading to the celebration of Easter. A time when many people choose to go without something, such as coffee or CNN, just as Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness. When this is approached in the spirit of making extra room for God in your life — as opposed to just cutting out caffeine or television — it can be very meaningful.
As I said, it has been some time since Lent was on my radar, and it caught me a little off guard when in our staff meeting yesterday Morgan said, “Why don’t we ask Christ what He’d have us give up for Lent. And what He would have us take up.” So we did. In a few quiet moments, we asked, Lord, what would You have me give up for Lent this year? Now, in my previous days of Lenten observance, alcohol was a leading contender for that thing I-don’t-want-to-give-up-and-therefore-probably-should. But I knew drinking wasn’t going to be an issue — that’s been gone for a while now. As I tried to quiet the clamor inside and sat with the question, repeating to Christ slowly, several times over, What would You have me give up? this is what I heard:
Self? I asked, to make sure I’d heard right.
Self seemed like a biblical thing to surrender, but it wasn’t quite clear to me what God meant by the word. I started trying to fill in the blanks, make some sense of it. Self-obsession? Self-centeredness? No more clarity on that one, and the gang was moving on to question number two: And what would You have me take up?
Give up self. Take up His love.
It’s not what I expected. And it had all the danger of striking at something deep in me. That sounded like God. I flagged it in my mind as something to give more time to later and went on with the day. I got back to it this morning. Sometimes when I’m trying to bring myself into focused attention on God and what He is saying, I journal. I write down my thoughts and questions, and as I do I listen for God’s response and guidance. Then I write that down as well.
What is the self thing I am to give up, Lord? Obsession. Okay, it’s self-obsession. I know what this means — that hyper self-awareness thing I do. Giving it up sounds wonderful. And next to impossible. I continue to write and listen. Yes, Jesus. I adore You. Yes. How do I give up self-obsession?
By looking to My love in you.
Wow. That makes so much sense to me. This is so right on with all that God has been saying and doing to try to get me to shift over to his love. I do, I do, I do want to return to Your love in me. Say more, Lord — how do I get there? What’s that look like? What do I look to now?
Pause. When God begins to shine his light on some issue in my life, be it internal or some issue taking place around me, I often have a hunch where things might be leading. You know what I mean — I see Christians do this all the time. We get a glimpse of what God might be up to, and we start speculating and filling in the blanks, bringing all our biases and inclinations to it instead of simply listening to Him for more. For example, you sense God prompting you to help your parents financially, and you’re already inclined to do that, so you just go and do it without stopping to ask, Now? How much? Or you sense God’s conviction on a long-standing sin in your life. Being inclined to self-contempt and beating yourself up, you just jump to, I knew it. It’s my fault. I’m the idiot, and you start making all your plans and resolutions to change (despite the fact that it never works). If you’d stayed with God on the matter, you might have heard His love and tenderness and His gentle counsel for a different way of handling it.
Filling in the blanks. That’s what this is. We are constantly filling in the blanks of what we think God is up to instead of asking Him. It isn’t helpful. It’s taking the ball and running with it, leaving God behind. Ask the next question, remember?
So I am lingering, quieting my own hunches about where this is headed, neither ignoring them nor letting them write the rest of the script. Say more, Lord — how do I get there? What’s that look like? What do I look to now? What I meant by “look to now” is, if I am not looking to His love in me, where am I looking? I have a pretty good idea, but I want to hear His thoughts on it.
Your ability to stay on top of things.
Right. Busted. Caught with my hand in the cookie jar. I love it when God does that. It is a wonderful sort of nakedness, to have Him name the very thing we are doing and trying to hide, or doing and not even knowing it because we’ve been doing it for so long it has become normal. This sort of conviction has no shame to it. I knew that what He named is exactly what I do. I place all my confidence in my ability to “get it done,” “get it right,” “stay on top of things.” No wonder I feel like I’m “just barely” walking with God. Forgive me, I write, It’s so utterly unfaithful, so godless and self-reliant.
Now, to add to the beauty of the story, for the past couple of mornings when I’ve sat down at the table to have a quick bowl of oatmeal, I’ve opened my Bible to read a bit, and both times it just opened to Psalm 41. Here is what I read:
I said, ‘O Lord, have mercy on me; / heal me, for I have sinned against You’. — Psalm 41:4
Do you hear David’s approach to God? He doesn’t expect to get slammed. He doesn’t just promise to repent and do better. He knows he has turned from God, and he knows what he needs is healing. So this is what I prayed:
I ask You to heal the things in me that have led to this self-obsession, this looking to my ability to get it done, get it right, stay on top of things. Forgive me. I want to be centered in Your love in me. You in me. Heal me.
Excerpted with permission from Walking with God by John Eldredge, copyright John Eldredge.
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Let’s join John as we approach the season of Lent (Wednesday, February 14) in asking the Lord Lord, what would You have me give up for Lent this year? And what would You have me take up? Come share with us what you heard God tell you! We would be blessed to know!