Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace offers a very accurate description of how I respond to the desert places in my life: by seeking relief rather than God. As I understand it, May says the way we grow, the way through the wilderness, is in accepting our unfulfilled desire as a longing for God that is a grace in itself. We are not flawed because we experience the desert, but if we find ourselves attaching some other object of desire to that longing, we place our will in opposition to God’s grace. When we discover and surrender those attachments, grace can begin to tranform our fear, anger, or discomfort. We begin to change.
The problem is, I don’t want to wait around in the desert. I want relief, and I think I know where to get it. I begin to believe that food, or affection, or achievement, or some chemical experience (whether or not triggered by an abused substance) is the best way out, because I can get it right now, and I can feel different right now. I begin to believe that the longing I experience is for the person, substance, or process that I’ve attached to that feeling, even though my experience tells me it has never relieved it for long.
“The best way out is always through,” said Robert Frost. When God’s people wandered the wilderness for forty years before going into Canaan, there were some who got comfortable enough on that side of the Jordan that they lost sight of the promise. Or, perhaps, they displaced the promise, believing that the next fix would be enough: the next generation of leaders wouldn’t fail them, the next well would never run dry, the next sacrifice would be their last. “Through” the desert sounded too hard; maybe Tomorrow-Me will be good as any Promised Land, or the promise-making God who is with me now.
When I look at the opportunity of the Lenten season, the forty days prior to Easter, I can easily make it about what I can accomplish with that time. But the wilderness is not about creating obstacles that, once overcome, show us to be more “spiritually fit” than we were (or than some others are). For one thing, why make the desert harder than it already is? And, for another, that obstacle and achievement have just as much potential to become attachments as the things I may forego in my “fasting.”
Lent can be about recognizing our longing as the deepest place where we can meet with the sufficient grace of God. It is a chance to recognize, in the midst of discomfort and being unfulfilled, that I am just as God made me, that I am just as I was meant to be, and that the only way out is to let God lead me through; to surrender to God in that moment of frustrated desire, and experience not self-satisfaction, but grace.
So, what should I give up for this forty day “experiment in truth?” If I am honest from the beginning, and attentive to how I respond to those desert moments, I might discover a possible way through. I can make a cold list of my bad habits or desired virtues, but if I sit in a moment of discomfort and notice what my self is reaching for to fix it, there’s a good candidate. When I think about what practices I might add to my life to help me draw closer to God, I might ask myself, “what would I do today if I knew nothing would make me feel any different?” And then I choose to live without that brief relief, or to live in that routine of deepening surrender, whether I feel any different or not.
Lent is the opportunity to come to faith — a saving faith. Not just a set of propositions I can readily defend, but a readiness to act in the direction of God’s will, whether it sounds good or not, because that’s the way through. Sounds a little iffy. Maybe,
people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.