The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones because we think we are doing something good even as we are not. When it comes to the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must be especially on guard against the temptation to make the season simply about ourselves. If our focus is simply on the quality of our prayers, our fasting, our almsgiving, and our repentance, we will miss the point of this season without even noticing it. For Lent is not about achieving a new “personal best” in our religious observance, but about preparing to follow Christ to His Passion. As the Lord told His disciples at the conclusion of today’s gospel reading: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”
There is no way to enter into the great mystery of His Self-offering without offering ourselves to Him in those for whom He offered Himself. He died and rose again for the salvation of the world; and if we want to take up our crosses and follow Him, we must gain the spiritual strength to offer ourselves for the blessing and healing of the people we encounter daily. We serve Him in them, and cannot say truthfully that we love God unless we love and serve them. Love in this sense is not a sentimental feeling, but an offering of ourselves for their and our good.
In today’s gospel reading, the Lord bemoaned the spiritual weakness of the disciples because they were unable to deliver the boy from the power of evil. He identified their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting as the reason they were not able to help him. The point was not that they had simply failed to keep up their spiritual disciplines, but that they had failed the young man by not developing the strength to offer themselves for his salvation. In this way, of course, they had also failed Christ.
All of us have relationships in which we are just like those disciples. We lack the spiritual health to offer ourselves to others for their healing and blessing. Whether in our own homes, at work, or in passing encounters with strangers, we treat and speak to others in ways that have little in common with our Lord’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world. We do that because we have not offered ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance for the healing of our souls. Consequently, we serve our own self-centered desires more than the needs of our neighbors.
The boy’s father cried out with tears to the Savior, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Humbled by his son’s suffering and his own inadequacy to help him, this man was not trying to use religion to glorify himself in any way. With painful honesty, he confessed his imperfect faith to the Lord for the sake of his son. His concern was not about himself, but about his boy. He was not afraid to expose his deep pain to Christ, and that was when his son was healed.
In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must be on guard against the temptation to view our spiritual disciplines in self-centered ways, as though they were simply exercises in religious self-improvement. Instead, we must use them to unite ourselves more fully to the Savior’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world. As we pray, fast, and repent, we open ourselves to the Lord’s gracious healing of our souls, by which He will enable us to manifest His blessing to the people we encounter every day.
We must pray fervently and persistently for Him to heal them according to His mercy, not according to our own desires or limited understanding of what is best. Fasting will strengthen our prayer as we refuse to satisfy our own self-centered wills in order to make room for Him to empower our souls. We must repent by treating and speaking to our spouses, children, parents, friends, and coworkers in ways not governed by our passions, but by His love. Remember that love in this sense is not simply about warm feelings, but about offering ourselves and others to Christ for their and our salvation. It does not mean telling people what they want to hear or granting requests that diminish them or us as God’s children. It does mean relating to others in a way that helps all concerned to open their lives to Christ’s healing and blessing.
When we recognize that we lack the spiritual strength to relate to our neighbors in this way, we must make the plea of the father our own: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Through such painfully honest humility, we will turn our attention away from how well we think we are doing in our Lenten observance and toward following our Lord in dying to self for the sake of others. For this blessed season of repentance is not focused merely on making us more religious, but on enabling us to enter into the awesome mystery of the Savior’s Passion. We must offer ourselves in repentance in order to follow Him to His great Self-offering. Christ said to the disciples, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.” That is where Lent leads, and it has nothing to do with self-centered religious observance. It has everything to do with dying to self for the sake of others.