When you’re trying to form a new habit, like get into regular exercise or going on a diet or getting through a particularly tough book, most of us, I’m sure, have taken the occasional “cheat day.” You’ve been really good up to that point, but this particular day was just a lot, and you figure you’ll cut yourself some slack. Maybe there was a lot more on your plate today, or maybe you had to work late, or maybe there was a disaster in the kitchen or an expected emergency for a family member. Basically, the day gets a bit overwhelming with stress and various responsibilities, and this new habit takes a back seat to everything. So we end up skipping a day, but to feel better about it, we excuse it with the aforementioned stressful rest of the day.
I don’t know how many of y’all tried to take on new habits during the pandemic, but I think it’s fair to say I had more cheat days than regular days. It was to the point that those habits I intended to develop never quite made it. And I’m not saying that the occasional cheat day is bad—sometimes we need a short break to get the motivation to keep doing the thing. But perhaps this year, eyeing all the stresses of the pandemic—jobs, school, changing public policies, wearing a mask way too long, loss of fun things to do—perhaps you’re considering not taking on a Lenten discipline this year. Why add more to your plate?
But I’d like to encourage y’all to still do it. The Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer have deep roots in our faith tradition, and are just as important when there is a pandemic still going on as they are in a normal year with its own stresses.
See, it’s often under adversity that faith is strengthened—when it’s tended to. The appalling conditions of slavery in the South are what birthed the beauty of Black theology, from gospel singing to fiery sermons and God-centered calls for justice. When individuals face terrifying diagnoses of cancer or terminal illness, turning to faith and spending more time in it flowers into the kind of faith that strengthens others, too. Martin Luther even said, “when you find you do not have an hour to spare for prayer, it’s best to pray for two hours.”
When we are faced with adversity, it ends up limiting our options. And when we have fewer options for things we can do—whether that’s for entertainment or for necessities—it gives us greater focus. Well, this year with the pandemic still going on, the disciplines of Lent can only help us focus more on how we are called to deepen our faith. Doing it, even when it’s hard, even when we want to take a cheat day (or a cheat month), will only strengthen our faith and inspire others to faith as well. These disciplines are about shaping our lives around the most important thing—our relationship with God in Christ.
When Jesus gave these instructions that we heard in Matthew’s gospel, he was reminding us of the point of what we’re doing. It’s not to get applause from others, or to get our piety noticed by our neighbors, but to deepen our relationship with God. Close the door to pray—it’s about getting closer to God by spending time in conversation, listening, and sharing. Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing—it’s about developing a habit of being generous for the sake of your neighbor. Wash your face when you fast—it’s about training yourself to rely more on God to provide. These Lenten disciplines are for us to grow in our faith, and when times are rough is the best time for that faith to grow.
And when you take on these disciplines, spending these forty days giving more focus to these limited options, it’ll ingrain a habit in you. It’ll strengthen your faith by helping you respond to the world faithfully: through prayer, through generosity, and through self-denial. It’s a unique time, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need to tend our relationship with God. Maybe this Lent, with its unique circumstances, is the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.