Lent: A New Chance at Failing Your New Years Resolutions?

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Before we begin, let’s just acknowledge the hilarity that is Jimmy Fallon for the title of this post. It was a recent joke in his oh-so-cute, oh-so-funny shows. I’m sure many of you are observing Lent in wonderful ways and are off to a wonderful start. But Jimmy’s joke got me to thinking about how we observe various seasons how we tend to get a little backwards and sideways, even with the best of intentions.

We just passed a season where the big, fancy New Years Resolutions were important, and then they somehow went away. (I wont tell if you don’t.) In other words, many of us have failed at our New Years Resolutions. Now it may be the case that some did not make big, fancy New Years resolutions, but for others it’s honestly the only time to engage in serious spiritual and personal reflection.

Our cultural fascination with being better than we actually are is boggling and sometimes damaging. Tina Fey quips in her edgy memoir, “Now if you’re not hot you’re supposed to work on it until you are.” And as offensive as that is, it’s still true about our culture: Be hotter, healthier, better.

But maybe hotter, healthier, and better are not your flavor. Maybe this is more up your alley—have a more rigid prayer life, dig deeper into Scripture, lead the masses to Christ . . . let’s be honest! The New Years Resolutions and Lenten practices that we commit to are often grandiose. I don’t want to assume that this is actually your situation—maybe you’re just reading this for a friend. Well, I may just be writing this for a friend.

I’ve failed at so many New Year resolutions. Take your pick—diets, workouts, Scripture reading plans, better hydration. In fact, my one resolution that I still hang on to is better hydration. And by golly I will drink two Nalgenes a day, so help me! However, there came a point when the place of resolutions greatly diminished in my personal life.

This happened when I was introduced to spiritual disciplines by the one and only Richard Foster. (What a scholar and a gentleman, am I right?) The Celebration of Discipline will rock the world of the old and new Christian. After studying this book in a small group I had new tools in my tool box. But it should come as no surprise to anyone that I still fell short. I still couldn’t do the things I loved and stop doing the things I hate. Then about 6 years later during my seminary career I was introduced to Robert Mulholland’s book Invitation to a Journey. My understanding and practice of spiritual disciplines changed dramatically, but now how you might expect. What actually changed is how I deal with myself.

Here’s what I mean: this fallen world and my fallen self have created wounds and walls that I’ve built up in order to self-preserve and survive. The behaviors that come out of these wounds are less than desirable. Mulholland refers to this as being dead in our flesh. As wounds are repeated throughout our lifetimes, the walls turn into fortresses. Some of my best fortresses even had moats with crocodiles in them. These “crocodiles” did things such as silently rage around the house doing angry dishes and angry laundry.

Maybe your crocodiles bite people’s heads off, or cheat on exams, or listen to the voice of fear. Wounded fortress crocodiles are funny that way. Well, as we know, God desires to heal us and bring us more into his likeness. God desires for us to be in right relationship with himself, others, and ourselves. Some have recently referred to this as holy love.

So what to do about these fortresses? Mulholland proposes seeking the the will of God for our lives in the coming season. Was that Sunday-School answer or what? But seriously, God wants to heal these walls and fortresses. Mulholland suggests that God wants us to partner with him in this healing process through, you guessed it—spiritual disciplines! But culture will tell you to use the disciplines to pull yourself up by the bootstraps in order to get your devotional life where it should be, while God says, “Come follow me, walk with me, partner with me. I love you.” That Lord of ours—so gentle, so kind.

Let me share a bit of myself with you. There was a season in my young Christian life, early in college, in which I read me a ton of Scripture. I rose everyday at 6 a.m. went to a coffee shop and studied till the cows came home. It was a good season and I love that young college freshman who tried to run after the Lord with her whole heart (and God loves her too). However, something went wrong. Something in the process created damage in a way that I couldn’t see coming. I hardly included God in the process and I did this so religiously that I burned out.

I burned out so hard that I couldn’t even see it. No matter how hard I tried to get back to having any sort of devotional time, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t force it any more. Eventually I realized 3 years of seminary had gone by without me reading the Bible outside of class assignments. And though this doesn’t make me all bad, it was a wall that God desired to take down and heal. No matter how hard I clench my fists and squeeze my eyes closed and repeat “I will do right!”

The hard truth is that I just can’t do right. I cannot force myself to be holy or into a holiness routine anymore. God wants me to partner with Him and seek His will for my life, even my devotional life, or I’ll end up using my wounds to injure myself even more.

The invitation today is to draw near to our Creator, draw near to His healing heart, not by making self-help resolutions or forced Lenten practices that may just be another product of our brokenness. Today we can partner with the Father by taking the time to ask him what walls and fortresses remain standing in our lives. Only he knows which of these need to come down first. He alone knows the order in which our healing needs to occur.

Perhaps you’re in a place where you’ve come to the end of that self-help road; the end of your self and self-will inspired Christianity. Would you join me in seeking the will of the Father from his very heart today? Would you join me in humbly submitting those walls to him that we might be healed?

This world needs more people with less walls. May our gracious and loving King welcome you and empower you to humbly lay before the Lord for transformation. And out of your healing and newness in Christ may you lead others to do the same. May this be our Kingdom work today in this Lenten season that brings us into he shadow of the cross and into the heart of the Father. Amen.

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A native Texan, Michelle Manuel is a candidate for ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. She writes for dreadedpastor.com and has a passion to see others grow in a life of spiritual health as they lean into their own formation with Jesus. She works as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor where she helps people care for themselves holistically. Some of her interests include recovery, healing, social justice, coffee, loud laughter, and deep conversation. She is married to Quentin.

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