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?
Gideon replied, “But Lord, how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least important member of my family.”
The Lord answered, “You can do it because I will help you…” Judges 6: 15-16a
God, it seems, loves to work through the weak and helpless.
- David was overlooked by his family as the runt of the litter, but defeated Goliath and became King of Israel.
- Peter, a poor, uneducated fisherman was chosen by Jesus chose as the rock on which to build his church.
- In more recent times, Mother Teresa, a little nobody from nowhere special, is known throughout the world for her loving service to the poor.
Maybe those who feel their weakness find it easier to turn to God and rely on his power and wisdom.
When I think I have all the answers and feel self-sufficient, it rarely occurs to me to look beyond myself—until I run into problems. When I’m smack up against my weakness, it becomes painfully evident that I need help. Even then, it’s not easy to ask for or accept it.
God is the never-failing source of help I can turn to—as long as I don’t expect help to accomplish my will on my terms. When I surrender to God’s will, I always find peace, because I can trust God to give me what I need (to do what he wants, not what I want.)
In my weakness, t’s always a struggle to lay down my will and my expectations, but when I do, I’m never sorry.
How about you?
Prayer: Lord, help me trust that your strength is made perfect in my weakness.
Reflection: How do you react when you feel weak? How can letting go of self-will and surrendering to God’s plan strengthen you?
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. 1 John 1: 8-9
Where did some of us get the idea we have to be perfect to earn God’s love? Why do we think we have to cover up our imperfections to be acceptable? The Bible’s filled with stories of God’s love and faithfulness—in spite of our sins. We turn our backs on God, not the other way around.
God knows our weaknesses better than we do and loves us anyway. What else is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son about? Or the parable commending the tax collector who acknowledged his sins, trusting God’s mercy, as opposed to the religious official whose prayer to God was a spiritual resume? Or Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross to do what we could never do for ourselves—perfectly obey our Creator? As St. Paul said, if we could put ourselves right with God by keeping the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Galatians 2: 21)
Covering up our flaws is the world’s way, not God’s. Denying our wrongs, blaming others, creating excuses, that’s the way of the world. Trying to look good on the outside when we know the truth on the inside creates tension. No wonder the psalmist said his sins filled him with anxiety.
It doesn’t feel safe to be honest about our liabilities in the dog-eat-dog world. On the other hand, it‘s a relief to be honest about our faults with God and with ourselves. Surely we can find at least one trusted human being we can trust to understand and to keep our sharing in confidence. It’s fundamental to recovery for countless people in Twelve Step programs. The Catholic Church has wisely recognized it as a means of obtaining God’s grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It does our hearts good to come clean in a safe atmosphere, and what atmosphere could be safer than God’s welcoming arms?
Prayer: Lord, I trust in your mercy and love.
Reflection: What secrets are creating tension within you? How can you find a safe and trustworthy way to unburden yourself?
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?