Last year I remember friends of mine saying they were giving up ice cream, licorice, or cigarettes for Lent. They wanted to distance themselves from indulgences which kept them from a greater devotion to God. Voluntarily, they were removing temptations and obstacles from their lives with the aim of preparing themselves for the Easter celebration. This Lent, however, is an entirely different scene. Temptations and obstacles are being taken away from us by “acts of God” and nature itself. Often, when we are unable to discipline ourselves, God does it for us. When we fail to recognize what is essential in life, God is more than willing to step in and help us see what we cannot see on our own. He begins to strip away the non-essentials so that we can see more clearly what is essential. Yet, that stripping away process is often painful and causes suffering, and nobody likes to suffer. However, without suffering, there is no Resurrection, and without the Resurrection there is no Easter.
When I was in Thailand last January, my dialogue with a Buddhist monk included a discussion about suffering. He told me that suffering in life is what led Buddha to begin his new religion. Buddha taught that with proper and concentrated meditation a person could detach himself from suffering and even from life itself. I told my Buddhist friend that Jesus taught something entirely different. Jesus taught that suffering was inevitable in life, born by humankind’s original sin. There was no way to avoid it. In fact, Christians are taught not only to accept suffering, but to embrace it; and to resist the temptation to sidestep, ignore, or deny it. By embracing suffering, but with hope and trust in the Lord, Christians can be drawn closer to God and be given a strength beyond their own. I told my new Buddhist friend that suffering is an essential ingredient of the Christian life. If we detach from it, it ceases to be our teacher.
What better opportunity than right now in our worldwide, God-directed timeout to ask the question: what is essential in my life and what is non-essential, superfluous? In what ways am I allowing myself to be entertained and enticed by wasted words, flowery images, societal diversions, gold-plated towers, unhealthy independence, and destructive battles; all of which feed the wrong side of my being?
Jesus is our model for living the simple, unencumbered, faith-filled life. Our Lord and Savior had no home, only a tunic or two for clothes. Rocks were his pillow. He had faith that his Father in heaven would provide for his daily needs. However, when Jesus eventually faced his own death, even what little he owned was taken away from him. He was stripped naked, spat upon, whipped, and mocked by his captors. He endured a brutal death which required suffering at a level few of us will ever know. However, he faced his intense trials with faith, believing that somehow God would see him through to the other side, ultimately defeating his greatest fears, excruciating pain, and even death itself.
True joy is not to be found in our diversions, entertainment, and certainly not in the encouragement of watching our enemies fail. This year, God is offering to us a Lenten season like no other. This time around, it is not just about giving up ice cream, candy or alcohol. We are being stripped down to our core. People we know and love dearly are losing their jobs, dignity, security; and some are falling prey to the virus itself. We people of hope in the Resurrection have a message of healing to share with our families and neighbors, as we take practical steps to ease their pain and loss. Suffering is not foreign to or adversarial with the Gospel. On the contrary, it is an essential element of the Christian life for those wanting to draw closer to the love and care of our God. Why would we want to detach from suffering or wish it away when God uses it on a daily basis to draw us closer to him and his kingdom of love?
If and when the coronavirus is finally contained, and life begins to return to “normal” again, will you want to resume all the same activities and diversions you pursued before in your life, or are there new perspectives and habits you would now like to pursue? Has this crisis given you a unique and unexpected opportunity to redefine what is truly “essential” or “non-essential” in your life? Being socially isolated can either be crushingly difficult, lonely or painful, or it can be an invitation to reflect more deeply and pray more often about how we are regarding or treating ourselves, friends, neighbors, current jobs, and God’s presence or involvement in our life.
The best thing about the Christian life is that it costs no money. There is no entry fee. Even if we lose everything, or even half of what we used to own, we can start all over again with God. All God wants is our willing hearts and trusting spirits. He will provide for all our needs if we cry out to him in humble submission and willingness to trust in his grace. He delights in us and he wants us to delight in him and his beautiful creation. He desires that we have joy in him above all else, and certainly above the cheap entertainment, exaggerated lies, and constant enticements the world is offering to us daily. If God the Father can help his son Jesus survive a most painful, public criminal’s death, he can help us endure whatever fires and trials might be currently confronting our lives.
One of the best passages I know in all of Scripture that helps us embrace suffering and not run from it can be found in the book of Philippians. The Apostle Paul tells his readers, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Philippians 3:10,11)
From my home to yours, my family and I want to wish you a blessed walk through this most unusual Lenten season. May the love of our God and the healing power of his Holy Spirit be upon you, your family, and neighborhood. May this Easter bring a celebration and a renewed sense of faith in your heart and home as never before.