For many, Lent is an arduous journey of faith. For 40 days, we pray, fast, and give alms with greater fervor than in other times, purifying our minds and souls to be prepared for the exuberant celebration of Easter. Like a backpacker hiking a mountain range or a marathon runner setting out for a race, Lent is often seen as a test of perseverance, enduring hardship and pain with discipline to reach the final destination. We strip ourselves of all that is unessential—all that slows us down and gets in the way—and keep our sights set on the prize at the end: If we can only survive the journey of Lent, the glory of Easter awaits us.
And in one sense, this is certainly true. Having endurance will make Lent a more fruitful experience by the end. But Lent is not fundamentally something to be endured. We go on this journey not just because we want to get to the end, but because there is something amazing to be found along the way: hope.
A Deeper Definition
Hope is an interesting word in our day. Like its counterparts in the theological virtues—faith and love—hope is used (and overused) in our world in so many vast and varied ways that we can hardly find meaning in it anymore. We hope for good weather and the health of our families, for peace and medical miracles, for victory in sporting events and lottery numbers. More often than not, what we mean by hope is nothing more than emotional optimism, an expression of our wishes and a sense of defiance in the face of long odds to accept what is inevitable. We know that what we want is not very likely, but we refuse to give up. We hope that our future will hold something greater than our present.
As Christians, we can admire this steadfast conviction and honor those who refuse to give up in the face of adversity. Especially in our world today—stricken by fear and unending violence—such an attitude is always welcome to see.
Like a marathon runner setting out for a race, Lent is often seen as a test of perseverance, enduring hardship and pain with discipline to reach the final destination.
And yet, we know as Christians that the true answer to these troubles cannot be found in our own personal optimism. No, when we have hope as Christians, we mean something quite different. Rather than looking to the future for what we desire, we as Christians begin by looking to the past, finding our identity in what has already come to be: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these actions, completed and undisputed, our sin was taken away. In this moment of history, real and complete, our relationship with God was restored, and our future was assured.
Unlike the hope of the world that deals with possibility, the hope of Christianity deals with reality. Our hope is not in wishful thinking, but in the promise of Jesus Christ to fulfill what has already been started. The truly remarkable statement of our faith is that we already possess what we hope for.
An Easter People
With this profound realization at the center of who we are, we see that Lent is not something to be endured to receive the prize at the end. We already possess that prize! In a very strange but real sense, we have already completed the race, even though we are still along the way. Even in times of trouble and when all seems lost in our world, when we feel as if all we are doing is barely enduring an arduous journey of perseverance, we forever remain an Easter people. We have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit, living within us.
Looking to the past, to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are already filled with the future joy of our own resurrection. How could we forget what has already taken place? How could we believe that the present is our ultimate reality?
With profound hope, we live and grow in this season as an assured and empowered people. We do not lie awake at night worried about our ultimate future; we do not question our place in God. More than in anything else, we know our place in salvation history. And this drives us forth. We fast, pray, and give alms, not as punishment for our sins, but as a redeemed and hopeful people who can do nothing else but reveal our joyful anticipation for the fulfillment of God’s promise to a world that only hopes in possibilities.
What we do in this season is not something to be endured to get to the real glory. It is a taste of the very glory itself: Through these acts of sacrifice, love, and conversion, we become what God promises in us and begin to build the kingdom to which we belong.