Finding grace in Lent

In our overachieving, performance-driven society, we’re tempted to tackle the work of Lent like we would a challenging homework assignment.

By Amy Butler

Every year as Lent approaches I try to think about some kind of intentional Lenten practice that might allow me to focus a bit more thoughtfully on spiritual inquiry. Since I’m a Baptist and try to take full advantage of the freedom that offers, some years I have taken something new on and some years I’ve tried to give something up.

For example, Lenten practice for me over the years has included daily spiritual reading, regular attendance at worship outside my own church, time carved out for reflective writing, regular exercise. Or, giving up chocolate, or spending money on frivolous things so I can give it away instead. (The year I gave up Diet Coke echoes in my memory as particularly painful.)

Every year as Lent approaches I can feel the weight of this consideration: how will Lent be different for me this year?

And then, as the season begins, the Lenten journey predictably nips at my heels, taking full advantage of my hardwired inability to fail well. Guilt for the times I slip up in my Lenten practice clouds any spiritual clarity I thought I’d gained, some years to the point of frustrated despondence, until I’m sure that God has serious problems on his hands if the rest of his followers are anything like me.

A few years ago this Lenten ritual of optimistic good intentions spiraling down to depressing human reality reached new lows. That was the year I decided that my Lenten practice would be eating vegan.

For 40 days.

I have many friends who are vegans, I reasoned. Being more mindful about what I eat will be good for me. How hard can it be?

Well, as you might imagine, after just a few days without cheese I was about done with Lenten practice altogether. And, I was also sure that my vegan friends were out of their minds. That year I threw in the towel on day three. Day three!

I think it was ironic that year — the year of my epic vegan Lenten failure — that I finally learned what all this giving up and taking on during Lent was meant to teach me in the first place.

It was meant to teach me about grace.

In our overachieving, performance-driven society we’re tempted to tackle the work of Lent like we would a challenging homework assignment: we’re smart and responsible and accomplished and good. We can and we will white-knuckle our way through this so we can be successful!

But I think that perhaps the work of Lent, no matter what you take on or give up, is not perfect practice with the goal of marking another successful Lent off our to-do lists.

Instead, I think the lessons are in the failures.

Though perhaps there are folks out there who don’t fail on a large scale, I don’t think I’ve ever met one of them. Maybe Lent is a small-scale experience of trying to live life one way and falling short. It’s real-time failure and forgiveness for things like eating ice cream when you’re trying to be a vegan, so that we might begin to remember God’s grace and forgiveness for the bigger, non dairy-product-related failures in our lives.

With the lessons learned in my wholly unsuccessful vegan Lent a few years ago, I’m trying this year, again, to live in this awareness of God’s constant forgiveness and grace.

On the busy days this Lent, for example, when I miss my resolved Lenten practice, I’m trying to regroup, pick up and start again the next day. And I’m hoping this means I’ve finally learned the real lesson of Lenten practice: that God shows up with lavish forgiveness and unmerited grace even when I don’t succeed.

I also hope I’ve learned a second and only slightly less important Lenten lesson: there’s no need to go to lavish and extreme feats of piety just to learn again the lessons of grace. Eating vegan, for me, did not inspire great spiritual insight, only desperate rage.

We can learn the lessons of Lent even in very small ways, because God’s grace will always find us in our failure, big or small. To my way of thinking, that’s good news this Lent.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.