Lent is a Season of Penance, Not Punishment

Lent – it’s coming. That time of year when we temporarily do without chocolate, television, or soy chai lattes. And I should do this, why? Because God wants me to, right?

Wait, why does God want me to go without chocolate and caffeine?

To make more room for Him in my life.

Lent is a season of penance, even though we often make into a season of punishment. Here’s the thing: penance is meant for our good. We do penance (categorized as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) so that we can rid ourselves of the things and habits that keep us from participating in the life of God, not so that we can be punished for our sins. Lent should be a time of joyful, if intense, purification and anticipation. The Catechism tells us that penance is an important part of our ongoing conversion. Another way to say this is that penance is an important part of our deepening relationship with God. We do penance because we want to make more room for God in our lives, not because we’re trying to earn his love or ‘pay him back’ for our sins. Most of the time, when we plan our Lenten observances we arbitrarily choose to give up something we feel a bit attached to because we’re “supposed to,” rather than because we see it an integral aspect of our relationship with God.  I’d like to suggest a different option.

For Lent this year, ask Jesus for a grace you want to receive at Easter, then ask him what kind of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving will make your heart most receptive to receive that grace.

God loves to give his children good gifts and it honors him when we ask! (See Matthew 7:11) This grace could be something you deeply desire, something you see lacking in your spiritual or moral life, or, best of all, you could ask Jesus what he most wants to give you.

To show you how this works in practice, let’s consider an example. You could ask: “Jesus, I want to receive the grace of hearing your voice more clearly in my life.” Then do something for Lent that will help open your heart to receiving that grace at Easter. Pretty simple!  If you ask Jesus to be able to hear him more clearly, look at your life and consider what noise is drowning out the voice of Jesus. You might give up listening to music in the car or when you walk on campus. You could commit to an hour of silent prayer every day. You might have an especially negative friend who makes it so you doubt God’s call in your life; you could consider spending less time with that person for Lent. Another option might be giving up social media to silence the voices of advertisement and comparison in your mind. What matters is that your Lenten penance should prepare your heart to receive the gifts that God wants to pour out upon your life!

If you’re not convinced, or you’d really just prefer to give up chocolate for the 12th year in a row, let me share a Lenten story.

For the past two years, I’ve asked the Lord what graces He desires to give me for Lent and it has transformed the way I experience and enter into Holy Week. Last year, I asked Jesus, “Please give me the grace to trust you in every situation in my life.” It was a big, bold ask! I knew that Jesus was calling me to greater trust and I wanted to respond with generosity. In prayer, I identified a number of competing voices in my life that were telling me to trust them rather than Jesus, namely comparison and self-reliance. The voice of comparison had me constantly looking at others and asking, “Am I doing things right? Am I the right sort of person to meet my goals? Am I good enough? If I’m better than that person I’m probably good enough, right?” Self-reliance told me, “Of course you’re doing it right, and if you’re not, you can figure it out all by yourself. You can make yourself good enough.” When I felt overwhelmed by the pressure to measure up, I would distract myself with TV, music, and podcasts. Despite praying a holy hour every day, the rest of my life lacked enough silence for me to hear Jesus’ invitation to let him do the heavy lifting. I decided to go on a complete media fast: no TV, no social media, no music, and no podcasts. I wondered what I’d do with all my newfound free time!

I was pleasantly surprised to find that once I silenced all the noise in my life, Jesus was there, waiting to talk to me all the time, to hear all about my day, and to be an integral part of everything I was doing. He wanted me to know him more intimately so I could trust him more deeply. I spent my whole Lent with almost two extra silent hours per day where I got to talk to Jesus and listen to his words. When I came up against comparison and self-reliance, I suddenly found myself telling him all about it and my fears vanished. Once Holy Week came around, I was ready to walk with him to the Cross in trust. On Good Friday, as I went forward to adore the Cross I realized that the blood and water that flowed from the heart of Jesus were more than sufficient to overcome any deficiency I might experience in my life. I could trust God with every situation I might face. I was flooded with confidence in God’s loving, attentive plan for my life. God gave me the grace I asked for: I walked away from the Good Friday service with a newfound trust that was rooted in Jesus’ loving sacrifice on the Cross.

God wants to pour out graces and gifts in your life. Use this Lent as a time to make your heart ready to receive whatever he wants to give you.

Here are a few examples to consider when you go to prayer:

“Jesus, I want to experience your love for me in a new and transforming way.”

  • Pray lectio divina or do Ignatian meditation with Jesus’ miracles every day for all of Lent
  • Pray with the 30 day prayer dare, repeating the prayers that are especially meaningful to you to make it last the duration of Lent
  • Read Father Gaitley’s 33 Days to Merciful Love (just take 40 days to do it)

“Jesus, I want to receive the gift of your peace rather than continuing to live in a spirit of anxiety.”

  • Give up social media as a way to free your heart from the voice of comparison
  • Begin and end your day with 5 minutes of giving thanks to God for all the good things he’s doing in your life
  • Write down 3 things you’re thankful for in the morning and 3 things in the evening

“Jesus, please give me the gift of heroic patience with people around me.”

  • Spend 10 minutes per day praying for your family, friends, and especially for individuals you find difficult to be around (Level up and pray a rosary for them every day!)
  • Commit to giving a specific, heartfelt compliment to one person every day
  • Deliberately choose the longest line at the grocery store and quietly pray for the people in line in front of you
  • Don’t use your phone when you’re waiting for an appointment, standing in line, or stopped at a stoplight – these little distractions have a way of making us feel like we deserve instant gratification and increase impatience

“Jesus, please give me the gift of deeper love for you.”

  • Every day, spend 10 minutes in the morning meditating on Jesus’ words in the Gospel.
  • Commit to a full hour of prayer every day (or a half hour, or any amount of time that is more than you pray right now)
  • Don’t listen to music for all of Lent so that you can spend more time talking with Jesus while you go through your day
  • Read a book about Mary and pray the rosary every day so that you can learn from her motherly love

“Jesus, please give me the gift of a heart that is self-emptying like yours.”

  • Commit to serving the poor once a week (or more) during Lent
  • Talk to the homeless you walk by every day — commit to learning their names and saying hello when you see them
  • Give away some of your possessions “until it hurts” – and not just old ones you don’t use any more
  • Commit to a leadership position that requires you to make a gift of yourself: start a Bible study, invite a friend into Discipleship, or get involved in ministry

Let the Lord guide your Lent this year! God is waiting to give you new graces!

Kerry Floyd
Kerry Floyd
After serving with FOCUS for five years, Kerry has transitioned into lifelong mission in continuing education at a local university. She is passionate about meeting students and university staff where they are and working together to explore truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and happiness through the deep intellectual tradition of the Church.

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