Note to readers: I wrote the following article in 2006 and it was subsequently published in a slightly edited form in The Living Church magazine that same year. Because it deals with the topic of will power and the observance of Lent it seems appropriate to post it now, on Careful For Nothing, as the 2011 season of Lent approaches. — Claudia Dickson
I grew up with the habit of giving something up for Lent. Perhaps you did also. In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, I would ponder what I would be willing to give up for 40 very long days. Sometimes I would simply choose something I wouldn’t miss very much, like pretzels. Yet, often enough, I would choose something like ice cream or chocolate; something that would require real will power to resist. And at the end of those 40 days I felt like an athlete who had just won a marathon – a bit worn out from the daily temptations, but triumphant just the same.
Yet, in the end, what did all that sacrifice accomplish? Well, I proved to myself – and others – that I have will power. But is this something God needs for us to acquire? Are we to observe Lent by proving that we can deny ourselves something? Was it will power that Jesus was developing in the wilderness, where he was sent upon the heels of his baptism?
Let’s think about this for a moment. Mark’s gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by Satan. Matthew and Luke also add that Jesus fasted for the duration. His baptism had been his public commissioning for ministry by his Father. Yet, before disciples can be called and people’s lives transformed, Jesus himself needs some time to ponder and focus upon his call – and be disciplined for it – by allowing God to prepare him for the kind of service that would be required of him.
So, was it will power God was looking for in Jesus? Determination to get the job done? I don’t think so. Jesus did not fast in order to see how long he could go without food. Instead he was seeking to empty himself of anything that distracted him from God’s voice and direction. The giving up of food was just a tool in the process of letting go of his own, and anyone else’s, expectations of him. Fasting didn’t prepare him for the ultimate sacrifice God would require of him. Fasting allowed him to be still and attentive so that God could prepare him.
Likewise, the temptations served to help Jesus focus upon what was more important: his (or someone else’s) goals and objectives, or God’s. In the end, God didn’t need Jesus to be self-directed or tenacious. We may find these qualities very helpful in our daily life and work. However, what God needed was for Jesus to be compliant; to depend wholly upon the Father and not upon himself.
I think today what often passes for virtue is actually detrimental to a life of faith. Many of us are goal-oriented and have a sense of decency and fairness. And we have no problem with setting aside forty days out of our year to work at being better: to give up some bad habits, to do more good things, to pray more often, to be more charitable to others. But the scandal of it all is that these efforts do not do God any good. God doesn’t need for us to be better people. He needs for us to be faithful people.
Becoming a better person means we rely on our own – or society’s – notions of what is good and just and proper, not God’s. We develop our will power to be better able to resist being quite so selfish, and to give God a bit more of our time and resources. But in the end, we are holding back on giving ourselves wholly over to God because we just can’t stand not being in control. So, we decide what is right, often blind to our prejudices. We choose how much to give, depending upon how secure we feel with the money we have. We determine what good works we should undertake and how much of ourselves we ought to share, avoiding what makes us too uncomfortable.
Yet, this kind of life is not what we were commissioned for at our baptism. God does not want us to depend upon our misguided judgments of right and wrong and good and evil, but upon him. And like Jesus, we too must be disciplined and prepared for the kinds of service God has in mind of each one of us.
These forty days of Lent are for our spiritual transformation, not for developing better habits. We are invited to undertake spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, prayer, meditation on scripture, study, service, solitude, and simplicity, not so that we can prove to ourselves we can live up to our commitment. Instead, these forty days of Lent are set aside so that we can begin to surrender control of our life. God does not need self-directed, self-motivated people. God needs amenable people who choose to depend upon him for direction and motivation. Therefore, it seems to me that our goal should not be to develop our will power, but instead, to begin to set it aside.
However, I must caution all of you who, like me, are chronic over-achievers: The goal of these forty days is not to be successful at being compliant. The language of accomplishment doesn’t seem appropriate for the Christian way of life. The goal of these forty days is to begin to learn how to listen for and seek God’s direction for your life; to begin to start asking what God would have you do instead of drawing up your own plans for how to be a good person. In truth it takes a lifetime of struggle and joy to rework those ingrained habits of ours and learn about faithfulness and obedience. We do not learn these in a season and our salvation is not dependent upon doing so. Jesus has already brought that about. Instead, we learn about faithfulness and obedience over the course of our lives among others who desire to learn the same thing.
Therefore, I invite you to join with me and concede that God does not need good people. Instead, God needs faithful people. People who will surrender their good intentions to him and let him re-direct them; people who will follow God and not simply brief him on their plans and ask for his blessing; people who no longer try to make themselves better by being more determined. For in the end, developing will power only makes us more resistant to God.
So whatever you choose to give up or add this Lent, I hope you will do so in order to create an empty space that only God will fill.
Next week: Why losing control always involves death and resurrection.