The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Guidance for Serious Catholics: What does God think about Lent?

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According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (CCC 1438)

So what does this mean exactly?  Well, here it’s being suggested that we should view certain events on the Church’s cycle of Christian traditions as opportunities to kick our pursuit of God into high gear.  How does the Church suggest that we do this?  By engaging in things like abstinence, fasting, the confession of sins, and acts of mercy.  In other words: do stuff that we normally don’t like to do.  Let’s be honest: humans reserve the term “abstinence” to refer to holding off on activities which are pleasing to their flesh.  This is what makes abstinence a difficult concept.  Self-denial would be a breeze if we were denying ourselves the right to do something painful, like hit our thumb with a hammer.

Now it’s quite obvious that our flesh craves things that God says are bad.  And once we recognize this, it sounds quite logical when the Church tells us it pleases God when we suddenly volunteer to make our naughty flesh miserable.  When we go down the road of fasting or self-punishment, we’re essentially viewing our flesh as our enemy and trying to prove our devotion to God by saying, “See?  You’re so important to me that I’m willing to make my flesh miserable just to please You.”  Well, this is certainly a nice sentiment, but the problem with practices like Lent is that they aren’t being directed by God.  They’re being directed by a human organization that claims to have the right to speak for God in your personal life.  Here’s where things quickly become a mess, because not only does God disagree with the idea of the Church acting as His interpreter in your life, but the Church is famous for grossly misrepresenting how God feels about you, and this results in all kinds of guilt and fear.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ACTIONS & BELIEFS

The kinds of religious rituals you engage in have a major impact on your underlying beliefs about God.  For example, let’s take this business about you trying to demonstrate your love for God through things like fasting and abstinence.  Such practices only make sense if God is unable to see into your heart, or if He considers your true feelings about Him to be far less important than how you act externally.  Is this really who God is?  Is He so limited in knowledge and ability that He can’t tell how much you care about Him until you stop eating for several days on end?  Is God really so disinterested in you that you have to drastically alter your behavior or travel to a holy building in order to get Him to pay attention to you?  No, these conclusions are all terrible lies about God which are going to totally undermine your faith and prevent you from ever feeling secure in your relationship with Him.

The disturbing truth is that many of the rituals Christians go through in an effort to strengthen their relationships with God end up doing just the opposite.  When you start fasting in order to improve your spiritual bond with God, you are telling yourself that God cares more about the contents of your stomach than He does the attitude of your soul.  You’re embracing the absolute lie that you must try to earn God’s favor through self-inflicted misery, because apparently God is some grim Guy who has a problem with His kids being joyful in life.  Many well-meaning Christians are laboring under the delusion that pursuing God is supposed to be a taxing, persecuting, stressful experience.  They think that true joy in the Lord can only be acquired through intense misery and by trying to do the exact opposite of everything their flesh wants.  When we practice things like Lent, we’re essentially trying to take a break from our usual “slacking” lifestyles by severely decreasing how much pleasure we experience in daily living.  The problem with this whole theory is that it was handed to you by human beings, not God.

God doesn’t consider eating to be a bad thing.  He isn’t down on desserts.  God could have made eating an entirely miserable or mundane experience, but instead He came up with a process that has plenty of potential for joy.  He programmed your tongue to really enjoy certain flavors and textures, and when you’re enjoying those things, God is enjoying your enjoyment.  It’s rather like the father who gives his child a toy that he knows the child will really like.  When the child’s face then lights up with excitement and joy, does the father then yank the toy away and punish his kid for being happy?  Does he say, “I find it offensive when you find joy in anything other than me in life”?  Of course not, yet this is often how we’re taught to view our loving heavenly Father. God didn’t make things like eating and sexual intercourse wonderful experiences just so He could then make you feel bad about ever enjoying them.  Does God set up boundaries for us in life?  Of course.  A man is supposed to be having sex with his wife and only his wife.  But when he is having sex within the bounds that God has set, God is quite pleased to see the man enjoying his experience.

There is a major problem with the assumption that we can’t be in a good place with God while we’re having fun in our flesh.  It is your internal focus which determines whether a bodily activity is a problem or not.  When you’re diving into that rich slice of chocolate cake, you could be thinking, “Yum, God, this is so good!  It was so wonderful of You to make eating such a pleasurable experience!  I’m so enjoying the way You’ve programmed my tongue to love the taste of this cake.”  God wants you to share your earthly joys with Him, not view Him like some perpetual rain cloud who gets off on seeing His children in misery.  God gets no joy out of seeing you dragging through the day feeling wretchedly hungry because you’ve decided that the activities of eating and pursuing God can’t happen simultaneously.  Of course they can, and the truth is that you’re going to find it much easier to focus on God when your belly is full than you are when you’re perpetually distracted by griping flesh.

PROBLEMS WITH LENT

Why is Lent 40 days long?  Because it’s supposed to be a reminder of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered around in the wilderness and the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  Well why on earth should you be reenacting either of these two events?  The Church tells you that this is a period of testing in which you’re supposed to be proving that your interest in God is more than some fickle, shallow thing.  Well, prove it to who?  You don’t need to prove anything to an all-knowing God, because He sees into your heart and has a thorough understanding of what He really means to you.  Trying to prove something to humans is an utter waste of time because humans are not your judges in life–God is.

Your relationship with God is a very personal, intimate thing.  If a wife wants to grow closer to her husband, which is the wiser course of action: to talk to her husband directly or to rely on a friend of her husband to tell her what her husband would like?  The leaders in the Church claim to be friends with God, and to have a better understanding of what He wants than you do, therefore they say that you should follow their advice about how to approach God without questioning it.  The problem with this theory is that while you’re busy blindly obeying any instruction that your leaders give you, you never give God the chance to voice His own opinions about what He would like in His relationship with you.  Instead, you decide for God that He can’t disagree with anything the Church says.  What kind of sense does this make?  Does God like it when we elevate an earthly organization above Him like this?  No, He doesn’t.

The truth is that the Church often gets it wrong about what God really wants in a given moment.  It’s like your friend Maria telling people that you’d love to go boating for your birthday, when you actually hate everything about boating.  In such a case, if you try to speak up and correct Maria’s wrong assumptions about you, how do you want people to respond?  Do you want them to totally ignore you?  Do you want them to say that you can’t possibly know yourself better than Maria does?  Wouldn’t you find such reactions irritating and insulting?  Of course you would, yet Christians treat God like this all the time.  When Lent rolls around, we just dive in without even asking God how He feels about it.  We don’t leave any room for God to personalize His care of us by leading us in a different direction than someone else.  Maybe Father Michael is convinced that Lent is a great thing for him to do.  Fine, but you’re not Father Michael.  You’re you, and perhaps for you, Lent ends up being a negative instead of a positive.

If we’re going to really please God in life, then the day must come when we start sincerely seeking His views of the rituals we participate in.  We also need to give serious thought as to what kinds of assumptions we’re making about God when we decide that certain rituals are good things.

Do you know why the Israelites were stuck wandering in a desert for 40 years?  Because God was punishing them for their ongoing defiance of Him (see The Last Straw: Israel Refuses to Enter the Promised Land).  Do you know what the general soul attitude of those Israelites was?  They were defiant, snarky brats.  They lived in tents that were stuffed with demonic idols which they worshiped with far more enthusiasm than they ever did the real God.  Apart from a few exceptions like Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, the wilderness wandering Israelites were not true believers.  They weren’t neutral about the real God, either.  They hated Him, and they delighted in doing everything He told them not to do.  Is this where you’re at with God today?  Are you some demon worshiping, unrepentant rebel who wants nothing to do with true Christianity?  If not, then why are you trying to symbolically reenact a time in ancient Jewish history when God punished those who were defying Him?

Suppose your older brother Harry is a disobedient, disrespectful creep who has embraced evil his whole life.  Growing up, your father gave Harry many spankings in an effort to try and get him to turn away from his rebellious ways, but Harry never reformed.  Now Harry is dead, yet every year you go through a period when you get out a belt and pretend that you’re Harry while you beat yourself.  You’re reenacting your father’s discipline of your rebellious brother, and as you inflict this misery on yourself, you say it’s going to help your own relationship with your father.  But is it?  No.  It’s going to make your body hurt, it’s going to bring back a bunch of negative memories from the past, and it’s going to do absolutely nothing to foster positive feelings between you and your father in your own life.  You’re not Harry, and you shouldn’t be associating yourself with him or trying to reenact crummy moments in Harry’s life.  You’re not a mob of snarky, God hating, demon worshiping rebels, either, so why on earth would you be trying to associate yourself with such people by observing Lent?

Jesus is the other Figure we’re taught to focus on in the Lenten period.  Jesus voluntarily went through a 40 day fast in the wilderness.  During that time, He was utterly miserable and sorely tempted by a demon who He found to be a formidable foe…at least this is how the Church paints it.  But in real life, Jesus is God Almighty, not some fragile human being.  Jesus created all demons, including Satan, and He reigns with supreme Authority over all things.  So was Jesus really tempted by Satan offering to share his kingdom with Jesus?  Of course not. For starters, Satan doesn’t even have a kingdom, and even if he did, Jesus is the King who owns all kingdoms.  Jesus wasn’t threatened by Satan in any way, and God Almighty doesn’t need food and water to keep Him going.  In the Church, we’re often taught to view Jesus in a very derogatory light–calling Him things like “fully God and fully man” which is the same as saying He is a created being (since all humans are created).  Well, no, this is offensive rubbish.  Jesus is nothing less than our glorious God, and nowhere does He instruct you to relive His forty day fast in some symbolic way every year.

Let’s check out that excerpt from the Catechism again:

“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (CCC 1438)

Notice all of those references to penance.  What does this mean?  Well, we engage in penitential practices in order to express remorse over sin.  Penance is basically a way of trying to externally demonstrate repentance.  But is really a good idea?

If a wife wounds her husband’s feelings, and she apologizes, what good is her apology if she doesn’t really mean it?  What’s happening in our hearts is far more important than the words we say with our lips.  Heart attitude defines whether an action is malicious or well-meaning.  Heart attitude is about your motivations–it’s the reasoning behind why you’re doing something.

Now when you’re dealing with people who can’t see into your heart, outward actions become very important.  With other humans, we must use words and behaviors to try and convey our true feelings, but with God things are radically different.  God is not a human, and relating to Him requires an entirely different approach.  God knows everything about us, and He is only interested in raw honesty.  He hates fake pretenses because they are such obvious deceptions to Him.  We can easily fool other people by acting differently than we really feel, which is a form of hypocrisy.  But hypocrisy isn’t always a bad thing–with humans, it’s critical.  What we call “good manners” often comes down to practicing hypocrisy.  You hate your aunt’s cooking, but it’s “rude” to be honest about that fact.  Humans can’t take raw honesty from each other–they’re too fragile and sensitive.  But God loves raw honesty and He detests hypocrisy. So when you’re talking to God, all acting needs to be thrown out and you need to be totally real with Him.  This is easy to do because you relate to God on a soul level, and you can pray to Him anytime about anything without any humans getting involved.

To establish a strong, positive, close relationship with God, you need to learn to treat Him very differently in every area.  We’ve already talked about how using some hypocrisy is critical to relating with humans, but it has no place in your relationship with God.  Sin is another issue which needs to be handled in very different ways, depending on who you’re dealing with.

When you confess your sins to a priest, what are you doing?  You’re listing off all of the ways that you’ve recently done things that you knew were wrong.  Well, who says those things were wrong?  God.  God is the One who defines what sin is, and this means that He’s the One we sin against, thus He’s the One we need to be resolving our sin issues with.  You don’t resolve sins with humans.  You resolve them with God.  It is God who convicts you of sin and raises your awareness that you’re doing something He doesn’t like.  When God convicts you, it’s like He’s calling you on your cell phone.  Do you know what many Christians do when God is calling them?  They ignore God and go talk to a human instead.

Think about it: why are you confessing your sins to a priest?  A priest is not God.  God is the One making you aware of your sins.  Conviction is one of many ways that God says, “Hey, we need to talk.”  There’s only one correct response to such a message, and that’s, “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.”  You’re not listening to God when you go running down to the church to talk to a human being.  Instead, you’re going around God and blowing off the possibility that you and God could have a productive conversation by yourselves without the aid of a human interpreter.  Does God like it when you refuse to directly engage with Him like this?  No, He finds it frustrating.

Sin is a God issue.  Repentance is something you do as a response to sin.  Since all forms of penitential acts are really attempts to demonstrate repentance for sin, and since sin is something you’re supposed to be talking to God about, how is it appropriate to turn the concept of penance into some annual tradition?  Suppose you have a friend named Mary.  Whenever you hurt Mary’s feelings, you ignore it and you don’t bother to ever apologize.  But you set aside 40 days of every year to contemplate all of the ways you’ve treated Mary badly and incessantly apologize to her for all of those things.  Is this a good plan?  No, it’s a lousy plan.  Mary would much rather you address issues as they come up so the two of you can resolve them quickly and move on.  She finds it frustrating that you ignore her most of the time and then go into some mournful funk for 40 days, during which you are very hard to talk to about anything except what you’ve done wrong.

But then there’s your friend Susan.  As a general rule, you and Susan get along fine, and you do resolve issues with her when they come up.  But then you set aside 40 days each year to really contemplate all of the ways you’ve been a less than perfect friend.  While you’re in this downer mode, Susan finds you irritable and hard to talk to.

Which one of these scenarios is closest to your approach to Lent?  Many Christians don’t get that into Lent–they just go through meaningless motions to feel “religious.”  And because they aren’t really into what they do, God finds the whole thing hypocritical and annoying, because God hates fake.

But some sincere souls really try to apply themselves in the Lenten season. Because the Church classifies Lent as a penitent ritual, taking Lent seriously means you must turn your focus onto the negative topics of sinning, feeling tempted to sin, and the many ways you’re falling short of perfection.  How is any of this going to strengthen your walk with God?  Whether you’re thinking of those snarky Israelites or you’re contemplating the image of Jesus stumbling around in the desert barely holding off Satan, your focus is on things which have nothing to do with you and God.  You’re not wandering around in the desert under Moses’ command.  God isn’t telling you to singlehandedly take on Satan.  The biblical accounts that Lent focuses on are simply not events that are going to help you in your own walk with God.

Jesus isn’t interested in you feeling rotten about the fact that He died on a cross for your sins.  Jesus said He laid down His life out of love for us.  If someone says “I love you,” are you blessing them by going into a depressed funk and treating their love as some terrible tragedy?  One of the lessons we are supposed to be learning from the cross is how deep God’s love for us really is.  As a Christian, contemplating God’s great love for you should result in joy, comfort, and encouragement, not feelings of guilt and unworthiness.  Your worthiness is irrelevant.  God loves you because He wants to, and He wants you to receive that love with open arms, not push it away while you talk about what a worm you are.

When sin becomes an issue between you and God, you can count on Him to speak up and convict you about it.  When He does, the solution is very simple. You agree with His perspective of your actions and you make any changes that He wants you to make.  Then you move on.  You don’t wallow in it.  You don’t make a whole ritual out of it.  You don’t try to control how God communicates with you by saying, “For the next 40 days, we will be focusing on the topics of repentance and temptation.”

In the Bible, God teaches us over and over again that our soul attitudes are what we are going to be judged by, and they are what He cares most about.  Spiritual rebellion is not an action, it’s a soul attitude.  Spiritual rebellion is when we inwardly say, “I don’t care what You want, God.  I’m doing what I want to do.”  The proper definition of repentance is a change in soul attitude.  It’s when we go from having a snarky, defiant “I don’t care about God” attitude to an obedient soul attitude of “Pleasing God is very important to me.”  Where is your soul at today?  Are you inwardly ignoring God and not caring about His opinion, or are you sincerely wanting to please Him?

To thrive in your relationship with God, you need to learn how to accurately assess how God feels about you in a given moment.  As a general rule, Christians don’t know how to do this, and this results in all kinds of unnecessary fear, guilt and angst.  But why are Christians so lost when it comes to understanding how God views them?  Because they’re being taught incorrectly.  The Church puts an enormous emphasis on outward behaviors instead of on inward attitudes.  Just look at that language in the Catechism–we’re told to give money, do good deeds, abstain from things, fast, and go on pilgrimages.  These are all behaviors.  Then we’re told to view these things as a way that we express our remorse over sin.  The Church wants us to reserve certain times of the year when we practice perpetual penance, which is the same as saying we ought to perpetually repent.  Well, suppose your child does something wrong.  When you address it, he is sincerely sorry.  After one conversation, you’re ready to move on.  But suppose your child then spends the next month saying, “I’m sorry for what I did.  I’m so sorry for what I did.  I’m such a rotten child. I was so wrong.  I behaved so badly.  I’m so sorry.  Gee, I’m so sorry.  I really truly am sorry.”  This is the kind of attitude the Church teaches you to have with God when she tells you to engage in penitential rituals.  Yet is this really what God wants?  No, it isn’t.

God is an extremely gracious Being who delights in showing mercy and compassion towards us.  Yes, He cares about sin, but He doesn’t want to have sin be the focal point of your relationship with Him.  If you obsess over sin with God, you’ll never get around to talking about anything else.  And while you’re busy focusing on everything you’ve done wrong, it’s only natural that you’re going to end up viewing God as an impossible to please Taskmaster.  You see, by saying penitential rituals are good, we’re saying endlessly apologizing to God is good.  Well, that can’t be good unless we first accept that God is always focused on our sins and that He’s unwilling to ever move on from the past.  This is not at all who God is, but it’s how many believers view Him because they’ve been taught to perpetually repent and confess their sins.

If you’re going to confess something, you should be talking to God, not a mere human.  And since God is with you at all times, why do you delay in talking to Him when you feel convicted?  Respond to His convictions immediately, change your soul attitude, and move on.  It all takes a nanosecond, and once it’s done, it’s done.  You shouldn’t be trooping down to the church to rehash issues that you and God have already put to rest.  And since God is so easy to succeed with, He isn’t interested in reviewing your sins over and over again.  He isn’t even interested in listing off every single way you mess up.

In life you will find that God only ever points out a tiny number of the sins you actually commit, and never will God tell you to obsess over what He’s doing in someone else’s life.  Yes, God punished ancient Israelites by making them wander for forty years in a desert while He killed a bunch of them off because they refused to ever repent and sincerely seek Him.  But you’re not them.

If Jesus was really alone in a desert for 40 days, how come His disciples knew about His conversations with Satan?  Clearly Jesus had to have told them about these events.  Why would He do that?  To give them an example of what it looks like to stay focused on pleasing God.  When Satan would say something, Jesus would counter him by turning the focus onto what Yahweh had said He wanted His followers to do.  The whole thing was like a charade for the rest of us to learn from.  Pleasing God must come before pleasing ourselves–that’s the important point Jesus was making.  He wasn’t teaching us to focus on the concepts of temptation or feeling miserable or being without basic necessities.  He was teaching us to focus on priorities.  But are we going to learn the right lesson and focus on the important points if we’re never giving God a chance to teach us directly in life?  No.  If we let the Church take the place of God in our lives, then we’ll end up bogged down in all kinds of useless rituals.

As a believer who really wants to progress in your relationship with God, you need to start seriously seeking God’s opinion about the many rituals the Church teaches you to participate in.  Don’t just go coasting through the liturgical seasons so you can fit in and feel spiritual.  Relating to God isn’t a game we play, it’s a very serious pursuit and the very purpose for which we were created.  He must be the One leading that dance if we’re ever going to get anywhere useful.  So before you continue on with Lent or any other ritual, ask God what He thinks about it.  When He starts nudging you to make changes, then make them.  When He starts giving you new perspectives, embrace them.  God’s approval is what we need to be seeking in life, not the approval of the Church.  Pleasing God is all that matters, and He is the only One who can teach us how to accomplish that goal.

FURTHER READING:
Impressing the Devil: Jesus’ Self-Exalting Temptation Story
Relating to God: Recognizing the Trap of Symbolic Pain
What’s holy about holy water? (Understanding Labels in the Church)
Learning from Yahweh: What It Means To Be Holy
All About Tithing

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