Lenten Authenticity

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. – Ephesians 2:1-10

One of the traditional ways of honoring the season of Lent is meditating upon our own mortality and sinfulness. This is a radically counter-cultural endeavor in a world that tries to avoid the reality of death and brokenness in all sorts of different ways. In our reading from Ephesians, Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus that they were once spiritually dead and powerless under the bondage of sin and evil. While believers have eternal hope because of the love and grace of Christ, it is still important to remember the power that sin has in our world and that death is its inevitable consequence.

Even Christian church culture can often fall victim to youth-and-happiness glorifying tendencies that leave little room for openly and honestly dealing with the struggles and failures of the Christian life. I recently read “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I Have Loved” by Kate Bowler. It’s a brief memoir of a young mother/seminary professor’s life after she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Ironically enough, Bowler’s academic area of expertise is the “prosperity gospel” with its belief that health and wealth are the results of faithful living and misfortune is proof of sin. At one point in the book, the author recounts attending one of the few Good Friday services at a prosperity gospel church that she could find. Although there was a quick acknowledgment of Jesus’ sufferings and death at the beginning of the service, it quickly jumped to jubilant celebration of the resurrection. Bowler calls this “Eastering the crap out of Good Friday” and it highlights an enormous flaw in the prosperity Gospel: Jesus, the perfect Son of God, lived a life of simplicity and suffering. This is just one example of the brilliant perspective that the tragedy of cancer offered to the author.

During this Lenten season, let’s have the courage to slow down and acknowledge the raw reality of our world. Admitting that we don’t have all the answers and that our faith can often be plagued by doubt is actually a very good and healthy thing! If we are honest with God about our struggles and fears, I believe that we’ll find that our faith becomes deeper and more authentic and  that joy can spring up in even the most dry and weary places.