During Lent, we focus on prayer, fasting, and acts of charity to grow closer to God. It’s self-defeating if these acts become a set of spiritual hoops we jump through, congratulating ourselves on our spiritual gymnastics. We might end up so absorbed in our own goodness that there’s little room for God’s love.
The prophet Samuel corrected King Saul when Saul kept the plunder God had ordered him to destroy. Instead, Saul kept the best sheep, then “sacrificed” them to God. It’s no accident that on his way to the place of sacrifice, Saul stopped in the town of Carmel, where he’d built a monument to himself. (Samuel 15:12) As Samuel told Saul, God was not pleased.
We miss the point when we decide how we want to please God while ignoring the sacrifice wants from us: a humble heart. (Psalm 51:17) God wants hearts open to his will, not insisting on our own.
Choosing Lenten sacrifices to build up our spiritual bank accounts is ironic. We grow closer to God when we recognize our weakness and dependence on his love.
Wherever we are in our Lenten journey today, we can ask God to show us how to surrender our wills to his as we move forward.
Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by saying following him involved denying ourselves as well as picking up our crosses. Sacrifice might mean accepting the crosses life brings our way rather than choosing our own.
Prayer: Lord, help me accept the challenges life brings today and offer them to you.
Reflection: How are you being called to let go of self-will today?
There was no king in Israel at that time. Everyone did whatever they pleased. Judges 21: 25
Ever read the book of Judges? It describes a time in Israel’s history when “everyone did whatever they pleased.” Many of these stories about Israel’s national heroes don’t represent their finer moments.
Israel stopped worshiping the Lord who brought them out of slavery.
- Gideon, chosen by God to lead the Israelites against their oppressors, defeated the enemy against all odds. Gideon then created an idol out of the loot collected and worshipped it.
- Jephthah, also victorious, thanks to God, promised to sacrifice the first person that met him on his return home. That person happened to be his daughter. Nowhere in the Law of Moses had God demanded human sacrifice.
- Samson’s arrogance and willingness to put his love affairs before his better judgment led to his destruction, even though he took his Philistine enemies with him.
- When Micah created idols, the priest he convinced to be his personal priest betrayed him for a better offer, taking Micah’s idols with him.
- A Levite surrendered his concubine to sexual perverts to save his own skin, then, when she died as a result, he used her death to start a war.
Chances are, none of these people woke up one day and decided to get themselves in trouble. They were just doing “whatever they pleased.”
While the results of our willful choices may not be as devastating as those listed here, self-centered choices are rarely a good idea and often self-defeating. Thwarted self-will leads to frustration, conflict, and retaliation. We end up not being “pleased” at all. Whether it seems like it or not, it’s wiser to follow God’s will rather than our own.
Prayer: Lord, teach my heart to trust you and choose your will over mine.
Reflection: When have you done whatever you pleased? What happened in the long run?
“I will announce,” says the king, “what the Lord has declared. He said to me: ‘You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask, and I will give you all the nations; the whole earth will be yours…’” Psalm 2: 7b-8
Then the Devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness. “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you kneel down and worship me.” Matthew 4: 8-9
God the Father had already offered his Son all the nations of the world. What did the Devil hope to gain by offering Jesus something that already belonged to him?
That’s how temptation works. Who’d be tempted by something false, damaging or undesirable? The devil is a liar whose only chance is to make something harmful appear good.
It isn’t always easy to see through the alluring promise of gratification to reality and the long-lasting effects of our choices. Temptation promises a good that evil can’t possibly deliver or offers a temporary reward that, in the long run, demands too high a price.
A quick drink, promising freedom from care and worry, might be fatal to an alcoholic. Another spending spree at the mall might be fun until credit card debt takes its toll. Lashing out may provide temporary relief to pent up emotions, but wreak havoc on our relationships. Belittling, gossiping about, or betraying a friend or co-worker might pump up our egos, get us off the hook, or even help us get ahead in the world, but is it worth losing our self-respect?
What if we gain the world and lose our soul? All for what? To feel important? Secure? Good about ourselves? The truth is, we already have all we need to feel good. We are loved by God. We are precious to him. We are important by virtue of the fact that he loved us into being. Can we see that temptation is promising something we already have? Can we see we have nothing to gain but damaged relationships with God, with others, and with our own selves by trying to take a short cut to the good we already have?
Jesus saw through the immediate results of temptation to the long view that God’s perspective gives. He accepted the world his Father gave him and chose to love rather than lord over the nations. He saw through the Devil’s empty promises. May we do the same.
Prayer: Lord, help me see temptations for what they are.
Reflection: What looks good to you right now? How will it affect you in the long run?
As Jesus sat near the Temple treasury, he watched the people as they dropped in their money. Many rich people dropped in a lot of money; then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny. He called his disciples together and said to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had—she gave all she had to live on.” Mark 12: 41-44
While Jesus was eating, a woman came in with an alabaster jar full of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. Some of the people there became angry and said to one another, “What was the use of wasting the perfume? It could have been sold for more than three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor!” And they criticized her harshly.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! …She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me…She did what she could…” Mark 14: 3-6
One way or the other, money really is no object. At least, that’s how it seems according to these gospel stories. The widow gave what she had. Her gift of a penny was more than enough, and valued by Jesus. The woman who anointed Jesus gave what she had, too. Her expensive gift was not rejected as extravagant, but also valued by Jesus.
In God’s economy, it’s not about how much or how little we have to give, but the love and sincerity behind the gift that counts. This applies to more than material gifts. What about the abilities and talents we’ve been gifted with? We don’t need to worry that what we have to share isn’t good enough. We don’t need to worry that we’d be showing off by putting our talents to use. When we are offering ourselves and our abilities to God, we don’t need to worry about other people’s opinions or comments. We don’t even have to worry about the results. Neither the widow’s penny nor the lavish perfume made a huge difference in the worldly scheme of things, but both were precious and appreciated by the Lord.
Every time we overcome shyness, or feelings of inadequacy, or fear that people will think we’re trying to show off in order to share what we’ve been given, we are doing “a fine and beautiful thing.”
Prayer: Lord, help me recognize my gifts and share them.
Reflection: What are your gifts? Who can you share them with today?
Why did the Israelites refuse to enter the Promised Land? They were afraid because they didn’t trust God to keep his promise.
When we reject the good God offers us, it’s probably for the same reason: fear. When we reject God’s loving plan for us, fear is probably involved in some way.
Let’s look at the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, and sloth.
- Pride is giving self-will priority over God’s will. If we believe God is all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving, why would we ever choose our own way instead of his? On some level, we must be afraid that God won’t do as good a job as we could or that his plan is not as good as ours, so we use manipulation or force to get our way.
- Greed probably involves fear that we won’t have enough or get enough or keep enough of whatever we feel greedy about: money, things, approval, attention. We grab for or hoard more than we need because we don’t trust God to provide for our needs.
- Envy might include fear that we aren’t good enough, or that we aren’t as good as others. Resenting what they have fuels our feelings of inadequacy. We don’t trust God’s love for us and the value we have simply because he loved us into existence.
- Anger, chances are, often involves thwarted self-will. Maybe someone or something threatened our fragile self-esteem, or we didn’t get our way. When our illusions of control are shattered, we get angry. We don’t trust that things can still turn out just fine-even if they don’t go our way-because God has it all under control.
- Lust, at least in part, may include the fear that we are unlovable or perhaps the fear of true intimacy and the mutual surrender involved in sharing love on a level that goes so much deeper than the physical plane.
- Gluttony might, in part, be connected to fear of discomfort. It might also involve trying to fill our emptiness in a self-defeating way because we fear that God’s love and his plan aren’t enough to sustain us, that his allotment of our daily bread won’t fill the gaping hole within us.
- Sloth, laziness, procrastination, might disguise a fear that what we do won’t be good enough. We’d rather not try at all, than try and fail. Underneath may lurk a fear that neither God nor anyone else could love us as we are, that we’ll be rejected unless we’re perfect or successful in the way the world defines success.
In all these options, we short-change ourselves. We deny ourselves the joy that comes from abandoning ourselves to God’s loving care and protective power. It’s risky to trust that he does love us, that he knows what he’s doing, that his plans are to build us up and to give us the future we hope for (Jeremiah 29:11), and that he will keep his promise. It’s a risk worth taking.
Prayer: Lord, lead me to the Promised Land you have in mind for me.
Reflection: How is fear blocking you from the joy God has in mind for you?
Then Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.” Mark 8: 34
- Forget: How does one forget oneself? How does one forget anything? Having studied French for five years in school, I used to be able to read and write it fairly well. Nevertheless, I only remember a few phrases. How did I forget all that French? Disuse. The knowledge was there, but I stopped acting on it. Maybe it’s like that with forgetting our “selves”. If you’re like me, self-will often makes demands. We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t, but we don’t have act on those demands, either. Self-indulgence makes them stronger. If we don’t pay attention to them, they’ll probably atrophy from disuse. Then we can better discern how to meet our legitimate needs and wants.
- Carry: Fewer demands on our time and energy leave more inner resources available to determine which crosses are ours and to accept whatever our cross might look like on any given day. We have a better chance of discerning what God is asking us to do—or stop doing. Without ego in charge, it’s easier to recognize our limitations and our need for help in carrying whatever crosses are ours. Sometimes our biggest cross might be developing the courage and humility to ask for help.
- Follow: Freedom from self-centeredness makes it easier to keep our eyes on the Lord. We can’t follow him if we don’t look at him. How will we know where he’s going? If we are self-absorbed, we’ll miss the guidance and promptings of his Spirit. If we’re pre-occupied with our agendas, we won’t have room for his directions.
It’s our choice. If, as Jesus said, we want to join him, we need to leave behind our pre-occupation with self, accept the challenges we face, and move, however falteringly, in his direction. We can trust that his grace, not our own strength, will empower us. It’s not all about us anymore.
Prayer: Lord, help me forget myself as I focus on you.
Reflection: Do you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to join him? If so, what will you forget? What will you carry? Where is he asking you to follow him today?
The entrances to heaven aren’t called the pearly gates for nothing. Pearls are created by an oyster in response to irritation. C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure, but shouts to us in our pain. Could it be that only broken hearts are open enough to let God in?
God’s grace can transform pain into beauty. The glorious Resurrection followed the crucifixion. God’s power and grace continue to bring good out of suffering today. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, by turning to God and facing their addiction, developed a program that has helped countless thousands recover physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Restorative justice programs invite victims and offenders, under controlled and supervised guidance, to encounter each other so that forgiveness and healing can emerge. God’s power and grace can transform our pain, too, if we’re willing.
When we experience pain, we have choices about what to do with it. We can wallow and remain victimized by it or we can surrender our pain to God and turn to him for strength, wisdom, and grace.
- Sometimes pain allows us to recognize our human limitations. Some of us just won’t stop until we’re forced to. It can be scary when we’ve reached the end of our own strength, but that’s when we have no choice but to trust God.
- Sometimes pain motivates us to change. When selfish behaviors don’t get us into too much trouble, we continue to indulge them. Only when the pain they cause exceeds the payoff do we become willing to give up whatever benefits our self-centered actions seem to give us.
- Sometimes we have no choice but to simply endure, as best we can. If we’re going to be in pain anyway, we may as well offer it to God and use it as an opportunity to exercise our faith, trusting that we’ll be given what we need-even when we can’t see it.
Any of these options can take us beyond the pain to a different level of being, to a different perspective, to a glimpse of God’s heavenly kingdom.
Prayer: Compassionate God, who brought good out of the cross, help us trust you to bring good out of our pain.
Reflection: When have you seen beauty brought from pain?
Job lost his children and all his wealth in a single day, but still praised God. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have feelings, grieve the loss of his children, or fear his new-found financial insecurity. It simply meant he did not blame God for his misfortune.
Job was able to praise God because he recognized that all the good things he had been blessed with were gifts, not entitlements. Job may have felt sad, scared, overwhelmed, or even angered by his loss, but he didn’t feel wronged by God because of it.
Are we fair-weather friends of God? If we’re in it only for what God can do for us, that’s not much of a relationship.
I have Multiple Sclerosis. During an M.S. attack, I suffered an excruciating headache for days. I wanted to trust God but was shaken to the core by pain and overwhelmed with anguish. I shared my frustration and despair with a spiritual mentor, who suggested that perhaps there was a bit of spiritual warfare going on, an attempt to get me to turn my back on God. I’d never thought of it as a temptation, but in the story of Job that’s exactly what was going on. Satan’s theory was that Job worshipped God only for what he could get out of the relationship and would turn his back on God if his blessings were taken away. The book of Job shows otherwise.
Right after the conversation with my mentor, a contemporary Christian song came on the radio affirming that we can choose to praise the Lord whether things are going well or terribly.
Hearing that song at that moment, made it all click for me. I sang along at the top of my lungs in spite of my pain. As I sang, I felt a wave of victory come over my spirit such as I can’t describe. There is power in exercising our free will. No person or circumstance can take that away from us.
Prayer: Lord, blessed be your name.
Reflection: What might happen if you praise God in the midst of a problem?
It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves the servants in charge, after giving each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. Mark 13: 34
Jesus makes it clear that we’re all supposed to watch, because we don’t know when the master will return, but watching isn’t all we’re supposed to do. Our Master has given “each one his own work to do….”
God made us all individuals for a reason. We each have a unique combination of talents, abilities, and interests. We all have a purpose and are uniquely situated to serve as we are.
Often, we need to grow where we’re planted. A shy homebody, hiding her beautiful singing voice out of fear disguised as false modesty, may decide to move beyond her comfort zone and take on the role of cantor when the need arises. A businessman might use his management skills to help the parish food bank get off the ground. The work we’re given to do goes beyond our vocation.
What would happen if we consider every person that crosses our path today as sent by God? Our work might be to give up a few minutes of our time to listen to them, offer a word of encouragement, or a simple smile. No one is going to encounter the same set of people that you or I do today. We each have a unique opportunity to reach out and touch someone.
The work God has in mind for us may or may not be how we earn our living, but it is uniquely ours.
Prayer: Lord, who do you want me to serve?
Reflection: What are your talents? How can you use them to be of service today?
I’ve got a Martha mind. That makes it challenging to “be still and know” God when I want to pray. Even if nothing in particular is troubling me, my mind does mental gymnastics anyway. I’ve tried various things to slow my thoughts: deep breathing, slowly repeating a word or phrase, focusing on an object or picture. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
The other day, they didn’t. So instead, I pictured myself welcoming Jesus into the Martha/Mary home of my heart. I imagined myself sitting at his feet, like Mary. I even leaned my head against his knee and relaxed. I gave myself permission to ignore Martha’s clamors and just listen to Jesus, like Mary did.
Maybe that’s why Martha appealed to Jesus for help in getting Mary’s attention. Martha had tried to get her sister to join her, but as long as Mary focused on Jesus instead of Martha, Martha’s bustling couldn’t distract her.
I didn’t have to pay attention to my Martha mind, either, even though she insisted. I sat there, at peace, listening to Jesus—only he didn’t say anything, and that was okay. Just being with him was enough. After a few minutes, as any good host would, I simply asked him what he wanted. He answered simply, too. One word. Kindness. That’s all my heart heard. But that was enough.
Prayer: Come into my heart, Lord.
Reflection: If you sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, what will you hear?