Lent is a distinctively Christian time for spiritual growth and development. Historically, the universal church has asked followers of Jesus to focus on three specific areas: the upward, the inward, and the outward.
The directionality of Lent: upward, inward and outward
The upward has to do with our vertical relationship with God. How are we intentionally shaping our lives in order to love God more deeply?
The inward has to do with the state of our “hearts,” the executive center of the human self. As I often say, if you want to know what is going on deep inside your “heart,” what happens when life squeezes you? What comes out of the tube of toothpaste? Whatever is inside, regardless of the label? The same is true for us. When we get “squeezed,” the content of the “heart” is revealed, regardless of what pious things we say or do.
The outward is how we respond to the world around us. This aspect of our spiritual life is often called the horizontal aspect of the cross. If the vertical is our relationship with Jesus, the horizontal is our relationship with people, most especially those who are challenging to love deeply.
These directions converge
All three aspects of our spiritual life, by God’s design, are interrelated. For example, we don’t measure our love for God by how often we pray, read the Bible or attend worship, as important as those things are to experience God’s grace. The most significant way to evaluate our love for God is to think about the person we most dislike or the person with whom we have the greatest amount of emotional tension. When we find ourselves growing in love for those we find difficult to love, it is a sure sign we are growing in love for God. As spiritual sages say, almost all spiritual growth is indirect, not direct. For example, by working on my relationship with my “enemy,” I am indirectly working on my relationship with God; when I am working on my relationship with God, I am working on my relationship with my “enemy.”
Our Lenten challenge
- To grow upwardly. Reflect on 2 Corinthians 12:9. Where are you experiencing weakness? Where do you need the grace of God in your life? Ask God for grace, sufficient for your need.
- To grow inwardly. Think about the last time you felt “squeezed” by life or by people and reflect on what came out of your mouth. Whatever came out, reveals the content of your heart. That is why Maya Angelou, the great poet, says, “When people show you who they are, believe them!” We show people who we are deep down when we speak in an unfiltered way. The gift in this situations is honesty. The curse is it hurts people.
- To grow outwardly. Remember the poor – the least, last, lost, lonely and leftout. Spend time with the poor and you will grow your relationship with God and your inner self will become more like Jesus.
The maxim of Lent is quite simple and extremely challenging. In Lent, we do the things that we can in order to experience the sufficient grace of God empowering us to do the things we can’t.
Learn more about our Lenten sermon series devoted to The Lord’s Prayer.
–Rev. Jeff Gannon