At lunch following last Wednesday’s community service, a local pastor asked me what I was giving up for Lent. Before I could answer he volunteered he was giving up fried calves’ livers and boiled cabbage – in essence, nothing. Now, there are years when I do not give up anything for Lent and do not take on anything either. I decide, for whatever reason, not to make my Lent a rigorous experience. By the way, Easter always seems to arrive much quicker these years. The more rigorous my Lenten discipline, the longer Lent seems to last!
Lenten discipline is not a demand of the Church, it is an invitation and a gift from the Church. It is an opportunity for you to challenge yourself in some sort of way. And, unlike a New Year’s resolution, Lenten disciplines have the added element of a spiritual component. We don’t just want to be a better person, we want to be more spiritually alive – more in tune with who God is and how God is at work in our lives.
This year I am giving up computer games. I only play a couple of card games, but I usually do them at critical moments in my day. When I get up each morning I sit at my home computer and visit several news and social media sites. Once completed, I play card games for 15-20 minutes. It seems to help my brain wake up. In the evening, before making dinner, I go back to my computer and revisit the news sites. After this, I again play computer games, only this time it can last for half an hour or more. It seems to help my brain slow down. Many nights I will spend another 15 minutes playing games before going to bed. The time adds up.
I read once how these kinds of games are addictive because they are soothing. Requiring very little thought as they integrate the hand movement of the mouse with eye coordination, the activity of playing a low-key computer game has an impact on the brain similar to what a person experiences while knitting or doing cross stitch. It is a physical activity that helps the brain shut off the demands of the day.
My personal Lenten challenge will be to find new ways to do this. A more focused time of prayer is an option – and a good one. Reading is another. Reflection and writing are possibilities. My computer offers other options besides games. I have several different programs that allow me to work with pictures and images – changing their color or their focus. It involves a lot of mindless mouse clicking and therefore is soothing, but when all is said and done, unlike a computer game, something has been generated.
My Lenten discipline is tempting me in ways I did not anticipate. Last week, when I went to the computer, if I felt like playing a game, I opened it and played. Now, the urge is there, but I have to resist it. I am realizing the pattern of visiting sites followed by playing a game is deeply ingrained in me. Resisting it takes real willpower.
There is an important lesson in this, namely, you can only be tempted to do something if you are determined not to do it. The main reason we determine not to do certain things is because we believe them to be wrong. We Christians are tempted more than most because we have embraced a clear set of guidelines for living set out in the bible and lived out by Jesus Christ. Some of these guidelines will be easier for you to embrace than others. Some will tempt you not at all, while others will require your constant vigilance.
A few years ago the publication Discipleship Journal surveyed its readers to learn what most tempted them. Here is what they learned:
5. Sexual lust
5. Anger and bitterness
81% said temptation was more difficult to resist when they had neglected their relationship with God. 57% said temptation’s lure increases when they are tired. 84% turn to prayer to resist temptation, 76% resist by avoiding compromising situations, 66% rely on bible study, and 52% find strength by being accountable to another person.
C.S. Lewis held that temptations get stronger the longer you resist them. He noted the person who gives in after five minutes does not know what it feels like to resist temptation for five hours or five days. He also articulated the difference between temptation and testing. Experiences that test us reveal our moral character and strength. Testing brings to the surface our true colors. It makes us stronger, better people. Temptation does not beckon us to our best, rather it begs and begs and begs us to be our worst by giving into what is wrong or even evil. According to the bible, God tests. According to the bible, Satan tempts.
Every year, on the first Sunday in Lent we follow Jesus into the wilderness. He goes there to be alone immediately after experiencing the most profound event in his life to date - his baptism. As he comes up out of the water he hears God speak: “You are my Son. With you I am well-pleased.” The sparse barren wilderness and forty days of fasting allows him to test what this means. It also presents Satan with an opportunity to tempt him.
Each temptation presents Jesus with a possible way of living into his identity as God’s son. The subtle way each shades who he is to be only adds to the temptation’s power. Break your fast by turning stones into bread. Let people see who you really are by throwing yourself off the Temple and having angels save you. Your destiny is to rule over all the world and you can have it now by bowing down to me, with no sacrifice, no cross required.
Jesus rebuffs each temptation by quoting Scripture. Knowing God’s Word enables him to know who he is and whose he is. He resists temptation by drawing on his identity in God’s eyes. We can learn from this. We can learn to ask the question “Who am I in God’s eyes?” Even better, “Who can I be in God’s eyes?” Every time we rehearse our Baptismal Covenant I ask myself in what way might I live into this identity more fully. And with each step I take in that direction I feel more truly alive. It feels good to be faithful. It feels good to live with integrity. It feels good to sense that I am who I am supposed to be.
At last Wednesday’s service, our preacher, Dr. J.J. Ferguson, said something very simple, yet incredibly profound. He said, “The bible doesn’t tell us why there is sin. But it does tell us the remedy for sin is confession.” I like that. I like viewing confession as God’s gift to us. As a child, when I was sick I said to my mother, “I don’t feel good.” She responded, “I know you don’t, sweetheart. Now let’s work on getting you better.” When we fall short, we say, “Heavenly Father, I have sinned in thought, word, and deed.” And God responds, “I know you have, sweetheart. Now let’s work on getting you better.”
I sense my Lenten discipline is one small way to make me feel better in one small aspect of my life. If I can triumph over this, with God’s help, what else might I be able to bring into submission?
I have mentioned one of the ways I sometimes prepare for a sermon is by doing Google searches. So this past week I landed on a page of quotes about “temptation”. My absolute favorite comes from a book by Claudia Gray called Evernight. More Google research reveals Evernight is a series of novels aimed at young adults. Who knew? The quote, I assume, comes from one of the characters in the book:
“Self-knowledge is better than self-control any day,” Raquel said firmly. “And I know myself well enough to know how I act around cookies.”
To Raquel I think God would say this:
“Stay away from cookies if you must, but there will be a day when you will get the better of them. You will come to see yourself as more than appetite and more than an anxious self who finds soothing comfort in binge eating. I am glad you know who you are. I am with you in the journey to who you will be. Lets get working on that when you are ready. But for now, know you are deeply, deeply loved by the Holy One who created you.”
And, as I type these last words on a Saturday evening, I so badly want to play a computer game. But, not tonight!