Here’s the paradox: Lent is a serious season, but it is part of a joyful process.
Here’s the problem: The stereotypical approach to Lent does nothing for either side of the paradox.
You know what I mean. People pick something to “give up for Lent” and they are done. Nothing very serious. Nothing very joyful.
What we need during Lent is some practices that bring our serious attention to serious things — getting things right with God. That way when Easter comes, we can step into the shining promise of new life with the risen Christ — the really joyful stuff.
Nobody in Protestantism had better tools for this than the Puritans — they wanted nothing to do with Lent as a season but they were all over penitence and new life.
My favorite example is the English Puritan, and “Father of Connecticut” Thomas Hooker (1586-1647). He was, by the way, a friend of John Beadle, author of the book on Christian journal keeping I was recently blogging about.
Hooker wrote a short guide to the process of self-examination called The Character of a Sound Christian in Seventeen Markes. Here is how he put it in 17th century Puritanese:
1. Use often to examine, and try, and search thy heart, and all thy actions.
2. Take an often account of thy life, concerning thy progresse in the course of godlinesse: …
He wants us to stop from time to time do a little personal accounting. A spiritual audit, if you will.
Note his second point: he is not suggesting we get down on ourselves. We are trying to see honestly the kind of progress we are making in following Christ. If you see where you have grown, rejoice. If you see where you are struggling, pray — and keep following.
But notice in the first point that the process is going to take some focused attention:
examine” as in look closely at the details;
“try” as in put it to the test;
“search” as in shine a light in the back corners.
In his little essay he picks seventeen things he sees as “marks” of Christian maturity. He backs up each one with Scripture passages that inform his thinking. His readers could take each one and write in their journals about how their lives stood up to the standard: some assets, some liabilities, but all honesty.
If you read his text and spent even fifteen minutes on each one over the course of seventeen days you would make a great start at a serious Lenten self-examination — leading to a really joyful sense of new life in Christ come Easter time. (And if you want to read his full text, you’ll find it in The Kneeling with Giants Reader: Writings on Prayer by History’s Best Teachers — you get it for free with the e-book edition of my book Kneeling with Giants.)
Before I post on some of Thomas Hooker’s “marks” of maturity, I suggest you make your own list of marks. Take some time with your journal and ask yourself “What would be on my list of things that indicate solid Christian life?” It could be character points, habits, practices, whatever you think of.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What is one mark of Christian maturity that you put on your list?
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