I gave up worry for Lent! by Johannah Reardon

I Gave Up Worry for Lent
Consider taking 40 days to give up a deep-seated sin.

JoHannah Reardon | posted 2/22/2012

I am not part of a church that regularly practices Lent, but the last few years I thought it would be good for me to give up something for 40 days, helping me to see my addictions and dependencies. In our indulgent, instant-gratification society, I saw the value of voluntarily depriving myself of something in order to focus more on who God is and how much I need him.

When I first started practicing Lent, I followed everyone else’s suggestions and gave up a certain food or media. Those experiences were fairly useful in showing me deep-seated habits and thus made me more aware of my need for my Savior as a result.

But last year I took time to pray about what I should give up for Lent. I asked God to show me a dependency that truly was hindering my relationship with him. I thought about foods, but I’m a fairly disciplined eater, so that didn’t seem to be a problem area for me. I’m also not a big media junky, so I didn’t feel compelled to go that route again. As I continued to ponder it before God, I had the strong impression that I was to give up worry for 40 days.

When I told my husband my decision, he looked at me skeptically. “Aren’t you supposed to give up something you enjoy for Lent?” He had a good point, but since I wasn’t tied to any church tradition anyway, I felt I could practice Lent any way I wanted. And once the idea of giving up worry for 40 days began to take hold, I felt stronger and stronger that was the course for me.

The funny thing was that if you’d asked me if I was a worrier, I would have said no. I have a pretty laissez faire attitude toward difficulties. I’ve usually faced the big things in life with trust rather than panic. So I could understand my husband’s attitude about me giving up worry. What’s the big deal about that? But I felt the nudge as strongly as I’ve felt anything, so I went with it.

Although I felt this conviction pretty strongly, nothing prepared me for the next 40 days, which turned out to be some of the most amazing, faith-filled days of my life. And to my surprise, I found out that worry has been one of my most deep-seated, tenacious sins.

My fear of violent men consumed me.
Although I faced the big things with courage and trust, I didn’t realize how I carried the burden of all the little things with constant fear and uncertainty. And many of them were wrapped up in fear of violent men. For example, within the first week of giving up worry I took a walk in a park near our house. As I was walking along the path, I came to a section that followed a road. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man in a truck was slowly keeping pace with me. Now, let me reassure you that this is a very safe park in a very safe community and that there were other people around. Nevertheless, noticing something like this would usually have put me in an all-out panic and I would have taken off running the opposite way. All my natural instincts were screaming at me to do this. But the first thing that came to mind was, I gave up worry for Lent. I do not need to worry about this. My body began to relax. While I was still aware and certainly not trying to be naÏve, I refused to allow the worry of what-if to consume me and take away the joy of my walk. When I turned the corner, the truck went on. I realized in that moment that my almost daily fears of men were mostly unfounded.

A few days later, my husband left on a two-week mission trip. Being alone in my house at night has been a long-time, deep-seated terror for me. For years whenever my husband left overnight, I’d double check that all doors and windows were locked and even stacked things at the door at night. I never wanted to go to bed when he was gone, so I’d stay up way later than I should and watch mindless TV or surf the computer until the wee hours so I didn’t have to turn out all the lights and go to sleep. I’d finally drop to sleep when I simply couldn’t stay up any longer. I knew this wasn’t healthy, but I simply didn’t know how to get over it.

This time when the anxiety began to build toward the evening, I recalled that I’d given up worry. I put my night in God’s hands and refused to think about it anymore. I locked my doors and didn’t give them another thought. I went to bed at my normal time and slept soundly. I cannot tell you the victory I felt. I realized I’d been trapped in a ridiculous web of fear for years. That lifetime habit of worry and terror was broken in one night and hasn’t returned. Although I’d tried giving this fear over to God before, until I’d identified it as a deep-seated sin of worry, I wasn’t able to find relief.

I really can trust God.
In hindsight, I see how Holy-Spirit inspired my giving up worry was for those 40 days. There were so many little things that would have driven me crazy. For example, my husband and I went to London to celebrate a milestone anniversary. While there, we took a ferry downstream from London to a tourist site. After we arrived, we decided we wanted to see two different things so we agreed to meet back at a little outdoor café we passed as we came in.

Within about 20 minutes, I lost interest in the attraction I’d gone to see and decided to head back to the café, but it wasn’t there. I was sure it was in a certain direction, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I began to stop each passerby to ask if they knew of an outdoor café with orange umbrellas. No one did. The panic was rising, compounded by the fact that our cell phones didn’t work in London so we had no way of contacting each other. Finally, I remembered I’d given up worry and prayed, Lord, you know where this café is. I trust you to show me. I relaxed and noticed a group of college students singing Christian songs across the street. I meandered over and listened to them awhile. As they sang, all residual panic washed away. I began looking around and saw orange umbrellas in the distance. I would never have been able to see them if I hadn’t stopped to listen to the students sing. And I would never have relaxed enough to listen to them sing if I hadn’t given up my panic. Most of all, I basked in the glow that God had known those college students would be on the corner just when I needed them.

From London, my husband flew to Africa for his mission trip. Normally, those two weeks would have been excruciating for me. I would have worried about every little thing concerning his safety. His prayer requests would have sent me into anxiety as I worried about each of those things. But as fears assaulted me during those two weeks, I let them drift away into God’s hands. It was an amazingly relaxed and peaceful two weeks.

Worry was my thinly veiled attempt to control my circumstances.
What my 40 days without worry also taught me is that I’m an overly responsible person. I try to be so responsible that I take on everyone else’s worries too. I somehow feel that if I can think my way through every difficulty and challenge I’ll be able to meet them with courage. I try to imagine everything that can go wrong so I can prevent that from happening. And in the process, I’ve taken on the weight of the world that only God can handle. Since I’ve realized that about me, though, I’ve been able to consciously let it go and have felt amazing peace and relief.

When the 40 days were over, I didn’t forget the lessons I learned. Many of the patterns and the reasons behind them are broken. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever have to face them as relentlessly as I did during that period of time.

Perhaps worry isn’t your problem. Maybe it’s something else. Take time to ask God what deep-seated pattern he wants you to give up. Concentrating on letting it go for 40 days may break the stranglehold it has on you for good.

JoHannah Reardon is the managing editor of ChristianBibleStudies.com and is a contributing editor for Kyria.com. She is also the author of seven fictional e-books and a family devotional guide. http://www.johannahreardon.com.

Giving up self-discipline for Lent by Mark Galli

Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent
There is really only one ‘lesson’ I’ve learned in the penitential season.
Mark Galli | posted 2/22/2012 09:51AM

As I begin to pen this little essay, I grab another three Werther’s Original Hard Candies, when I’ve already consumed two over my daily allotment. Such is the state of my personal discipline when it comes to food—I have no discipline.

So maybe this would be a perfect thing to focus on during Lent. I’m really sick and tired of being a person who has no food discipline, and I’m sick and tired of carrying around extra weight. And to be honest, when I think about this part of my life, I’m sick and tired of me. Maybe a little abstinence will do me some good. Maybe I should give up candy for Lent. Or maybe fast one day a week. Or do something hard. Then I might learn a little food discipline. I might even start losing weight. I might even start feeling good about myself again.

This train of despair is no doubt very common this time of year. By mid-February, our New Year’s resolutions are ancient history. Along comes Ash Wednesday and, well, it’s like a reprieve. We get a second chance to discipline some weakness or form a new habit. Another opportunity to improve our flagging self-respect!

Lent is supposed to have more spiritual overtones than the mere self-improvement mantras of New Year’s. But I suspect that for many of us, Lenten disciplines are more about us than about God. More about getting our act together in some area that continually discourages us and repeatedly sabotages our self-respect. The advantage of Lent over New Year’s resolutions is that we can bring God to our side, and the whole church is there to cheer us on. But for many of us, I suspect, it’s one big self-improvement regimen, with God as mere personal coach. But who am I to judge others? I have enough self-centeredness of my own to deal with.

The White Lies of Lent

I know some readers are thinking: Boy, is he being the Grinch that stole Lent. I suppose I am. But I’ve lived through more Lents than most people, and I’ve learned at least two things over the decades.

First, personal discipline gets harder, not easier, as you get older. The little white lie we tell people is that by learning to discipline ourselves for a short period, we increase our ability to be disciplined for longer periods.

For whatever reason, this rarely, if ever, has happened to me. For example, when I was younger, I could easily fast one day a week for Lent. Now the thought of fasting once—on Ash Wednesday—drives me into a deep funk. It makes me dread Ash Wednesday. What has happened? How come all that practice at fasting has only made things worse? Because fasting has only heightened my love of food! I miss it so much when I fast! Food consoles me in sadness and helps me celebrate my joys. When it is taken away, what’s there to live for?

Second, we rarely move on to bigger and better things. This unveils the other white lie we tell ourselves: As we discipline ourselves in small things (eating sweets), it will inevitably help us discipline ourselves in large things (like being generous to the poor). We get this from Jesus, of course (Luke 16:10), but it’s the inevitably that’s the problem. You see, when picking the small thing for self-discipline, we sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not all that small. We pick it because it plagues us, and has plagued us for years. This means it’s likely to continue to plague us for years to come. And so instead of helping us to move on to loving others, our life energy is spent trying to not eat little pieces of candy.

Fasting doesn’t even necessarily lead us into deeper prayer, which is the big twofer of fasting for some people: We discipline the body while immersing ourselves in prayer. But when I fast, prayer is the last thing I feel like doing. I’m tired, weak, and thinking about food the whole time I’m praying.

So, instead of the small thing helping me become faithful in the big thing, it just makes me focus more and more on the small thing. Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways. I believe, but O Lord, help the enormity of my unbelief.

To be sure, I have known a few Lenten successes. My wife and kids and I gave up TV one Lent and made a surprising discovery: We didn’t like TV all that much. From that Lent forward, there were very few times when my wife and I had to discipline anyone to stop watching too much TV.

But that exception proves the rule. The other times I have successfully fasted or made strides in serving my wife, for example, I became quite proud of my improvement. My right hand definitely knew what my left hand was doing. In short, what my Lenten successes have done more than anything else is inculcate pride and self-righteousness. Spiritually speaking, that’s one step forward and two steps back.

So Lent for me has generally done just the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. It’s made me more aware of my sinfulness, selfishness, and lack of faith. It’s made me a worse Christian in some ways.

And this may suggest the real point of Lent.

Thank God, Easter Is Coming!

I grant that there are superstar Christians whose motives during and after Lent are more purely God-driven. And I ask for their prayers. But I suspect that most Christians are like me, and being inveterately selfish people, we naturally try to turn Lent into an exercise of self-improvement, though we do give God a supporting role. But why bother with God at all if mere self-improvement is the goal? There are plenty of helpful self-improvement programs out there—to help us lose weight, to help us organize our schedules, to help us have better sex, and so on and so forth. Most never enlist God’s help, and I don’t have a problem with that. I take it that God planned it this way. Maybe he’s saying, “Hey, when it comes to small things like this, I’ve given you sufficient abilities to manage your lives on your own. Why are you bothering me about this?” In short, I don’t believe we need Lent or God to improve ourselves in these small matters.

But we need Lent and God if we’re going to get saved.

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.

Easter is the perfect day to end Lent because it’s the day when we recall that the chains of law and death have been broken by Jesus, the one who fulfilled the law and conquered death for us. We recall it in worship, with trumpets blaring and choirs singing and (in my church, sans yours truly) dancing in the aisles. We do it after church by gathering with friends and family and eating and drinking as if gluttony were a virtue.

So for me Easter doesn’t become a day when I thank God that he has made me more disciplined, not like those non-liturgical folks who don’t even observe Lent. Instead, it becomes an occasion to celebrate the fact that my self-respect does not hinge on my self-discipline, and that my very lack of discipline is the paradoxical sign of the gospel. Indeed, while we were gluttons and prayerless, while we didn’t give a rip about the poor, Christ died for us. It’s not for the spiritually fit and healthy that he came, but for the unfit and unhealthy. We may be faithless in areas small and large, but he remains faithful through and through.

So I end this little essay by grabbing two more pieces of candy, for Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow! It will be time to give myself again to disciplines great and small. I do that partly because, in the end, it is probably better to be a little more disciplined or loving and self-righteous than undisciplined, unloving, and merely lazy. And who knows, by God’s grace, I may lose track of what my left hand is doing!

But I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.

And recalling that I have one.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker).