See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity…So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them.
Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19b-20
Choose life! This passage from Deuteronomy has always delighted me, because it seems so obvious. Why would anyone do otherwise? The fact that God has to command and persuade us to choose life hints at the pervasiveness of sin, and speaks to the truth of Paul’s experience, described in Romans 7. the good that we would do, we cannot; we find ourselves unable to choose life.
At first, the method of self-denial at the heart of our observance of Lent might not seem like the answer. But it isn’t about punishing ourselves, nor is it about our moral or spiritual ‘fitness’: Lenten discipline is not like so many days of a tough workout, after which we find ourselves stronger and faster. It isn’t something we do. Self-denial means self-emptying, putting ourselves more and more fully into God’s hands. We are not the source of the life we seek. Rather we turn to the source of life as we look to God to fill the empty space created by the things we’ve given up. Giving up beer or chocolate, or whatever else we choose to forgo during Lent, is not the end. We might lose weight, or develop healthier habits. But that isn’t what it’s about: giving things up is a means to a different end, and we can only realize that end if we allow ourselves to feel the space created by what we’re missing, and ask God to fill it.
So it is that self-denial is at the same time choosing life. To enter self-consciously, prayerfully, and wholly into a season of penitence is to be still in the place of emptiness, and look expectantly to the One who alone can fill us. Discipline makes way for fruitfulness, for growth, as today’s psalm reminds us:
How blessed is the one who
does not walk in the
counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But her delight is in the law of the Lord,
and in his law she meditates day and night.
And she will be like a tree firmly planted
by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
And its leaf does not wither;
and in whatever she does, she prospers.