We are now in the season of Lent. As we all know it is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If you are anything like me, Lent does not fill you with the same child-like joy that Advent does. And yet both are times of preparation. And they must both be times of joy.
Obviously, Lent is a time of sacrifice and this means that we might be tempted towards the grumpy side. If we do Lent properly we will have less free time, less in our bellies, and less money in our pockets. These things are not usually a cause for celebration. In fact being busy, hungry, and poor are some of the largest stressors we can encounter.
But we are reminded by Our Lord to be cheerful even in these times.
Let us be clear: this is not a “fake it till you make it” philosophy. We have to be honest about how we feel in our current spiritual life. But we must remember that our disposition depends greatly (though not totally) on our will. While my emotions may shift, I can choose to focus on the good instead of the evil in my life. This will not always magically change my mood to the positive, but habitually drawing my mind to what is good and holy will have a strong influence on my feelings.
And this is what Christ is talking about when wants us to re-orient our souls so that we can even rejoice in sacrifice.
The Scriptures say “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) That is because there are fewer ways to witness that are more powerful than being a happy Christian. CS Lewis points out that joy on this world is a window into the next:
“I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End… Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were place here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which , if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” (Letters to Malcolm, pg 92-93)
And it is never more important to be cheerful than when we are at a loss of the things of this world. If we are only focused on this life, then this world will never give us enough time, food, or money. We will always want more. But if we accept the loss of all of these things for something better, that is a cause of joy, rather than sorrow. “The loss of all of these things I consider a so much rubbish that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
As a married man, I am no longer free to pursue romantic attachments to other women. Many of my male students have trouble understanding how I could limit myself so much. I tell them that if (insert popular female celebrity name here, e.g. Jessica Alba) wanted to get physical with me, I would have to decline. For many of the young men I teach, this seems unthinkable.
But I do not see married life as a limitation. My love life isn’t narrowed, it is deepened. And the best way I can witness the greatness of marriage is to be joyful in it. I truly enjoy my married life. I enjoy the time I get to spend with my wife. I enjoy the times that I can take care of her when she needs me. I enjoy being there for her as she is there for me.
The same must be true of our Christian faith, even during the difficult times.
We all want to be happy. Everything we do in this life is an attempt to gain greater happiness. We Christians know that the only thing that we make us truly and eternally happy is the love of God in Jesus Christ. So the question is: do we show it?
When people encounter us, do they see our happiness and become filled with an aching desire to have it as well? If not, then we are not living as we should. Every day I encounter people who are hurting because they are hungering for happiness while this world only gives empty pleasure and diversion. They yearn for something more substantial, something that will feed their souls. And they will only believe that we have it if we live in joy.
As I said earlier, we may not have complete control over our feelings. And many of the saints encountered the dark night of the soul while many of us deal with great tragedy and depression. But what a witness we can be if we can be joyful even as we go to the cross.
This Lent, let us try to move our hearts to joy as we sacrifice. Here are a few practical things to help with that:
1. Remember the World is Temporary. When we miss out on a particular physical pleasure or we encounter a physical discomfort, it helps to remember that this world will come to an end. The pain we encounter will cease and the pleasure we skipped, even if we received it, would be fleeting.
2. Be Goal-Minded. This is often an effective method when doing physical exercise, so this should also be the case with spiritual exercise. Imagine the type of person you wish to become. Concretely understand the virtue and holiness of the saint God is calling you to be. When you do your Lenten sacrifice, believe that each action gets you one step closer to becoming that which you desire.
3. Feel the Freedom. The sacrifices are not mere outward actions. Instead we commit ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving so that we can be transformed from within. If we do our Lenten sacrifices correctly, we will feel less of a pull towards sin and the material world. That freedom is a cause for joy. Enjoy that feeling when you encounter it.
This world is a world of joy and sorrow. There will be much this Lent that may cause great grief and heaviness on our hearts. Even our Lord felt that in Gethsemane.
But in the next world we will leave sorrow behind and only have joy. When this world is dark, the joy in our hearts acts as a kind of lighthouse to those battered about by all of the sorrow. And that joy comes from the love of God inside us.
God loves a cheerful giver because a cheerful giver loves God.
Copyright 2016, W.L.Grayson