March 20, 2023 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders
“Lent, then, is about facing our failures.” – Esau McCaulley
Facing my failures? No thanks. If you’re anything like me, facing your failures has the potential to be a quick slide down a mental spiral. On a good day, I fail with humor and grace. I can laugh at myself and learn from my mistakes. I can move on quickly from them and am able to separate my worth from my failures.
On a bad day, however, my failures feel weightier and my worth can’t be separated from them. Whether it’s a missed deadline, an insensitive comment to a friend, or a lost temper with my son, on bad days these failures will haunt me and sometimes consume me. Then, the spiral begins. My mind becomes my enemy, and my identity becomes its victim. I begin to doubt myself where I once felt confident. Subtle thoughts arise that call my character and capabilities into question. And once I crack open the door and let those thoughts in, shame quickly enters.
Can you relate?
That’s why when I read McCaulley’s words that Lent is about facing our failures, I shift in my reading chair, feel the knot in my stomach tighten, and my shoulders tense up. Facing my failures means facing the ugly parts of my self–it means exposing myself. I can feel the door cracking open, and I don’t want to face the shame. I don’t want to be reminded that I fail at all the things: believer, wife, parent, daughter, friend, colleague. Like Adam and Eve, I want to hide from the exposing reality that I’m not perfect, that I hurt others, and that I sin against God. But during Lent, I am called to face my failures intentionally. In fact, during Lent believers are called to not only face our failures, but to take on a practice that often leads us directly into it: fasting.
One of the ways the Church has historically leaned into the season of Lent is through the discipline of fasting. Fasting is typically practiced by abstaining from food but can also include giving up benign habits or activities to make space for prayer and deeper intimacy with God. This could look like one person fasting from food on Fridays, while another may fast from watching the morning news. I have fasted a variety of things during Lent, from bread to alcohol, to social media, to red meat. And every year I just can’t hold to it perfectly. Whether that means I hop back on Twitter out of boredom, or I decide that 40 days is much too long without a pastry, I do not carry out the fast completely. I fail.
This is how Lent leads us into failure. When we fast we leave ourselves vulnerable to the ache of our hunger or the disruption of our routine as we temporarily cut out food or habits. Our feeble desires, human frailty, and inability to be uncomfortable are exposed when we fast. We recognize in our hunger just how weak our minds and bodies are and how quickly we wish to become satisfied again. We recognize in our disrupted routine just how much time we spend distracting ourselves–and maybe even the reason why we are distracting in the first place.
Regardless of what we fast from, the absence of these things leaves us with a void–and what lies within that void can feel scary. Maybe it’s the reality that our anger sits closer to the surface than we care to admit. Maybe it’s our imposter syndrome we try to drown out by keeping busy. Or maybe it’s the insecurity that we are failing those around us as we run on fumes in an attempt to balance it all. Whatever it may be, the void fasting uncovers leaves us uncomfortable, disrupted, and maybe even a bit shame-filled.
So if you’re like me, you end up failing during Lent. You break the fast when your hunger or desire breaks you down. Or you take up that habit again because what has surfaced in the void can feel like too much to face. Fasting has a way of exposing our limitations. Fasting reminds us quickly just how weak we truly are.
But Lent, while a penitential season, was never intended to be a season of shame. McCaulley points out that the wisdom of the Church and its traditions is that it assumes we fail. He writes, “The Church presumes that life is long and zeal fades, not just for some of us but for all. So it has included within its life a season in which all of us can recapture our love for God and his kingdom and cast off those things that so easily entangle us.” 
The Church has a built-in, yearly rhythm whereby we name and own that as humans–even as Christians–we fail. And this includes failures both big and small. It’s the typo you didn’t catch. It’s the meeting that didn’t go quite as you expected. It’s the hurtful things you said out of envy and pride. It’s the unethical call you made to save your company money.
But Lent is also the season that leads us out of hiding. During Lent, we are given the clear but gentle reminder that we are not perfect and we were never required to be. While we were still sinners Christ died for us, Romans 5:8 tells us. Our failure and shame are not roadblocks to Christ, but rather the assumed path to him. The Gospel gives us new context for our failures–one that does not need shame to make sense of it, only the cross.
Because Lent leads us to Easter, to resurrection and new life. And this is the hope believers cling to: that our failures–and this includes failures both big and small–do not define us. The mental spiral doesn’t have to be the route we take anymore. We are new creations in Christ. Our route is paved with grace.
This Lent, let’s view our failures not as an invitation for shame, but as opportunities for the gospel to be lived out in our broken lives.
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