Lent is Learning Self Discipline
Lent is upon us, and as a “season” in the Church calendar, the six weeks of this period are a time of concentrated self-discipline and spiritual “combat.” The foe of these activities is the self. It might be argued that ALL of the Christian life is devoted to self-discipline and spiritual combat; St. Benedict himself said that all of life was a continual Lent. However, Lent is a time when we concentrate our self-discipline, when we do more serious combat with our inner most passions, with those things in our lives which separate us from Christ. If we have struggled to change these things in our ordinary lives, we should struggle more intensely during Lent.
It is easy to misunderstand this notion. I long thought that Lent was a time to give up something, to make a sacrifice for the Lord. Fasting from certain of life’s pleasures IS a necessary part of the Lenten regimen, but its purpose is not sacrifice but self-discipline. As long as I was of the impression that I was to make sacrifices for God during Lent, I found my Lenten experiences to be fraught with failure. It was not uncommon for me to begin a fast only to quickly fail because of my weakness and self-indulgence. I found making sacrifice difficult, because I had not disciplined myself to be able to make those sacrifices. I failed because my reasoning and motivation had been wrong; I failed to realize that sacrifice is not possible without first disciplining oneself in the art of self-mastery. I was too self-absorbed to make many sacrifices, but I also knew that self-discipline could change that in me.
My experience as a Christian tells me that others have the same difficulties. One week into Lent I can ask the question to virtually any group of Christians, “how many of you have already failed in your Lenten rule?” Most will acknowledge that they have.
Lent, however, is NOT about sacrifice; it is about self-discipline. This is a time when we purpose to discipline ourselves, to make ourselves do things in the spiritual life which we ordinarily don’t do, or which we don’t do with the intensity which we exercise in Lent. It is a period in the liturgical cycle when we expect ourselves to get more serious about our Christian commitment. It is a time when we say “no” to ourselves through strict fasting and abstinence, when we reach out of our self-absorption by the doing of additional good deeds and almsgiving, when we train our minds, through more serious prayer and reading, when we purposely strive to alter our focus from the lures of materialism and this world to the face and Presence of Jesus.
These changes in our lives are not so much sacrifices as they are acts of self-discipline, and knowing this makes it much more possible to complete them. I, personally, believe that as much as ninety percent of a Christian’s response to Christ involves the disciplining of himself. Indeed, the success of our self-discipline during Lent will serve as an “icon” of our Christian lives, and will reflect the direction which the remaining time of our lives follows.
As we enter into Lent and its spiritual demands, it is important for us all to remember that we are entering into a period of intense self-discipline. Our success in accomplishing our Lenten discipline will depend upon the degree to which we discipline ourselves to be obedient to Christ [1 Cor. 9:24-27], and our openness to Christ will be affected, for good or ill, by our success. Since we “can do all things through Him who strengthens us,” [Phil. 4:13], it is imperative that we strive with all of our beings, actively cooperating with the Holy Spirit, to have a serious and successful Lent.