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29 March 2016

Leaving lent behind: habits of grace

Leaving lent behind: habits of grace

by David Mathis

Lent is over. For many, that means little, or nothing. But for some of us, especially those of high church and more liturgical traditions, it can be both a let down and a sigh of relief. We finally get to take up what we gave up.

It's a relief because many, whether because of social pressure or their own good volition, adopted special practices for these 40-plus days to prepare for Holy Week and the great Triduum summit (those three days from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday). For many, Lent involves fasting in some form, and often a fresh devotional initiative, like daily Bible reading or simply digesting some short daily meditation.

Many are freshly relieved, even happy to end their fasts and get back to normal life in 'Ordinary Time' - those two longest periods of the Church calendar, 33–34 weeks total, outside the Christmas and Easter seasons. However, for those not merely going through external motions, but finding new joys in the Lenten season of anticipation and heart-preparation, there can be a let down.

Perhaps the expectation of Easter gave your soul some fresh focus and purpose that helped lift you above the fray and friction of everyday life. Maybe you tasted for the first time how fasting can sharpen your affections and serve as a surprising pathway for expanding and enhancing your joy in God. Or maybe some devotional-reading initiative brought you into new daily access to God himself through His word.

You may have stumbled into some fresh taste of spiritual delight during Lent, and now a part of you actually wishes this season, in some sense, would extend through Easter and beyond, and that the depths of your new-found joy would only go deeper.

Means of grace for greater joy

The good news is that God's ordinary 'means of grace' — His word, prayer, and fellowship — are indeed for the ordinary time, not just special seasons and occasions. It may be that what you tasted during Lent wasn't special, but was actually normal Christianity. That God's ongoing grace is, in fact, available to you every day of the year in the same measure — not just during Advent and Lent.

Take fasting, for instance. Your church tradition may have conditioned you to think of fasting as going without meat on Fridays during Lent - or even all of Lent - but Jesus freed his disciples to access the spiritual power of fasting with far less restraint. He did not say to his followers: "If you fast," but: "When you fast." (Matthew 6:16–18). He promised his Church "will fast" (Matthew 9:15). The story of the early Church in Acts, and the pattern of fasting that emerged, bears it out (Acts 9:9; 13:2; 14:23).

Christians are free to fast, not just during Lent, but year-round — not under obligation, but in absolute freedom.

And fasting is not only a God-given tool for regularly sharpening our affections, but fasting also partners with prayer to add a dynamic aspect to our relationship with God. Fasting is a way to channel our God-ward angst into prayerful petitions. Fasting amplifies our voice toward God by demonstrating earnestness, whether it's a prayer for the salvation of a family member or friend, or intercession on behalf sex-slaves and babies murdered in the womb, or a plea to God to give us more of himself.

Fasting grabs the mic, so to speak, and gives us a way to express our most urgent requests. God doesn't mean for us to speak into the mic all the time, but He also doesn't mean for us to always use our indoor voice. He means for the life of prayer — our responding to the initiative of His revelation in the Bible — to have its peaks and valleys. He speaks in the still, small voice, and screams in our pain. And we too whisper to God in our calmest of days and cry out to Him in our fasts.

Joy in the ordinary

Fasting is often the focus of Lenten practices, but it's only part of a larger matrix of God's ongoing grace for the Christian life. A simple framework to help you think through that matrix is the triad of word, prayer, and fellowship. Or as I put it in Habits of Grace, hearing God's voice, having His ear, and belonging to His body.

One of the keys to Christian joy in ordinary time is recognising that God has promised His blessing along these specific routes. He has revealed particular paths of His promise. And the simple habits of life we develop and cultivate — some call them "spiritual disciplines" — can position us to going on receiving his grace daily. Year-round.

Word, prayer, fellowship

It's a truly astounding thing that God communicates with us. He speaks. He could stay silent, but He chooses to express Himself and tell us what He's like. And He does so, not through subjective voices in our heads, but in His objective, external word in the Bible.

And then, wonder of wonders, He not only speaks, but invites us to respond to His word in relationship with Him. That's prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God, revealing ourselves, in response to His self-revelation in His word, the Scriptures.

And, yes, God didn't make us to live and worship as solitary individuals, but as a body, the Church. Fellowship with other Christians is an essential part of the matrix of His grace for empowering everyday human life, and drawing us into the deep joys of the divine life.

Pick one habit

Your best way forward after Lent, for your deep and enduring joy, could be to consider what one habit you might carry forward after Easter, or even start afresh. Wisdom is not in changing too much all at once, but identifying one or two modest, but important new habits, that will bring your soul more regularly into access with God's revealed channels of grace in his word, prayer, and fellowship.

Who knows? You might be pleasantly surprised to find that the return of ordinary time doesn't mean you have to return to the inferior spiritual joys you once knew as ordinary life.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and pastor for Cities Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, as well as the companion workbook for individual and group study.