The Barren Bush or the Fertile Tree?

BY MATIAS SUR

Our Lenten journey is well underway, which is why I want to offer a quick reflection on the possible temptations that may arise—or may have already risen—in the middle of our respective paths toward Easter Sunday.

At the risk of being reductive, if you had to pick between these two persons reflecting on their Lenten journey, which would you pick?

1. “Oh man, I killed it these past 40 days! I went 40 days without eating chocolate. I’m soooo proud of myself!”

OR

2. “Oh man, these past 40 days were tough. At times, I really struggled against the temptation of eating chocolate. I actually fell a couple of times and had a Lindt truffle.”

I hope the first response made you shudder. But I mention both of these examples because they reflect two obstacles that can get in between us and God during our Lenten journey: pride and restlessness. 

Given our weak human nature, we may easily feel proud or restless as a result of our Lenten resolutions. For example, I could be proud of how I’ve successfully restrained myself from eating those tempting Lindt chocolate truffles. Or, I could be proud of how I’ve followed my plan to read Scripture for 15 minutes every day. 

On the other hand, I could feel restless over having refrained from eating those Lindt chocolates. Maybe, I am so restless that I can’t wait until Lent is over. I could also be feeling restless about how much of a toil those 15 minutes of daily Scripture reading have been.

These signs of pride or restlessness reveal the intentions of our hearts. Today, I want to help us reflect on the intentions of our Lenten resolutions.

What are my intentions when I commit to these resolutions? Am I doing this to test myself in order to prove to myself my own strength? To help us answer these questions, I would like to turn to a short verse from the Prophet Jeremiah to guide our prayer:

“Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in his flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted besides the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought, it shows no distress, but still bears fruit” (Jer. 17:5-8).

When our hearts turn away from the Lord, we begin to rely on ourselves for strength. Without proper rectification of our intentions, our Lenten practices can easily slide from being theocentric to egocentric. If this happens, the Lenten journey that began on Ash Wednesday as a path to the Resurrection morphs into the exaltation of our own inflated egos. Lent, after all, is not about our actions. Lent is about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection—Christ’s actions.

If we take a look at Genesis, it was our actions that caused our Fall. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commands about the forbidden fruit, humanity’s relationship with God was ruptured. But Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection became the basis of our salvation, remedying the relationship that was once broken.

Therefore, the purpose of our Lenten resolutions is to remind us of our fallen nature, and thereby act as reminders of our need for God. To provide a modern example, they are like the alerts that we receive on our phones and computers. Instead of notifying us of the next assignment we need to turn in or alerting us that a Zoom meeting is beginning in 30 minutes, our Lenten resolutions alert us that each of us, in the depths of our hearts, desires and needs God.

Our Lenten resolutions are not ends in themselves. Instead, they are habits to help us recognize our need to make a daily commitment to grow closer to God. But when we rely on ourselves, we make these Lenten sacrifices the ends rather than the means. We end up treating our resolutions not as reminders of our need for God but as assignments to complete.

So, then, let’s turn our attention again to the imagery of the prophet Jeremiah to ask ourselves:

What are goals with these resolutions? Do we see them as the ends or merely the means? And who do we want to be? Do we want to be the barren bush—relying on our strength—or the fertile tree—relying on God?

This piece is a part of a syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. Read more at: https://www.yalelogos.com/lent-2021

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