This article was published first in Itchen Valley News March 2020
So, New Year’s Resolutions – how did that go then? That determined resolution not to drink alcohol or to cut down on your sugar consumption or to go to the gym? If you are anything like me, it’s a huge achievement to have got through January with the resolution intact (and congratulations if you did) but what about now….how is it going? Are you back in the same place as you were in December so far as the booze is concerned or have you planned to reduce your sugar in take but succumbed to the delicious cakes at Brew with a View in Easton, or are you wondering why you took out a whole years’ subscription to the gym, when you haven’t been able to make it to more than one or two sessions? Perhaps a new approach is necessary!
The church has a different take on changing our characters. It’s called Lent. This is a period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, this year between 26th February and 12th April. Like many things to do with Christianity in our culture, Lent has been trivialized in the last few hundred years to have become no more than a gesture towards fasting – ‘what are you giving up for Lent?’ Christians ask each other, often answered by some faint reference to a not eating chocolate. But Lent is actually much more challenging than this and, in my view, has a much greater chance than a New Year’s Resolution of succeeding in achieving its objective, if properly understood.
Lent is modelled on Jesus’ time in the wilderness (a period of 40 days) at the beginning of his ministry in the gospel of Matthew 4 verses 1-11. Like the new leaf which we turn over in January, it is a period that Christians enter voluntarily: Jesus allowed the Holy Spirit to lead him into the wilderness, knowing that that he would face challenges there. But the key difference to a New Year’s Resolution, it seems to me is how Jesus, how Christians, deal with those moments when that thing that we have resolved not to do becomes more and more compelling or the desire to give up doing that thing we determined to do seems overpowering.
In Matthew 4:1-11 we see Jesus treating those moments as temptation by a Tempter. Personifying that voice which says ‘drink me’ ‘eat me’ or (in the case of the gym) ‘give up’ puts the temptation outside ourselves. We see this wish to pour delicious claret down our necks or gorge ourselves on exquisite cake or save ourselves from the rowing machine, as something which is not us, not our character, not ‘just who we are’, but other – something outside us which we have allowed to come in and which wants to ruin us. This is an approach which ‘names it and shames it’ or perhaps ‘names it and deals with it’. Lent is a time to practice getting to grips with the real problems in our lives.
If this is not too much of a stretch, I would like to draw a parallel with the corona virus which is ravaging the world as I write. Work to defeat this virus could only be started when its genetic code was released by the Chinese Government to the scientists – they could describe it – and work out a means of defeating it. They could name it and deal with it.
In the same way, as we see temptation for what it is, the unwanted voice of an enemy, we can head it off in the mind (or perhaps we should say the heart) before it gets to any kind of decision; any kind of action or inaction. As various people have said: ‘Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny’.
Most importantly, as Jesus did in the wilderness, we can, in all of this, call upon that other person who is also separate from us but with us, if we choose to invite Him in, that ‘Higher Power’ as Alcoholics Anonymous refer to Him (the Holy Spirit to Christians) to help us, to give us strength, to resist that temptation and to defeat that enemy, who just wants to wreck our lives.