Surrender: A Lenten Invitation

Mar 20 / Alyssa Bell
On Ash Wednesday, I marked the foreheads of my parishioners with ashes and reminded them of their mortality as well as the hope they have through the cross of Jesus. We relinquished our idols of striving and incorruptibility and instead received a greater gift – the gift of paradox.

Lent, for many Christians, is a season of reflection and confession as we follow Jesus’ footsteps to the cross and await the joy of his resurrected life on Easter morning. It is also a season that invites us into two ways of being: naming that we are mortal and confidently knowing that nothing can extinguish the life we receive through Christ’s Spirit. Both are true. We cannot have the Spirit life without surrendering our own lives. It makes no logical sense, and yet… it is true.

Faith is almost always an invitation to hold tension, liminal space, the unknown, or the not yet. And we cannot embrace this paradox without letting go of our measured boxes and human checklists.

As a Christian, I wrestle every year with how to observe Lent. A few weeks before Ash Wednesday, I begin to experience this inner anxiety about what I should give up or add to my life. Every year, I try (giving up Netflix or chocolate, or this year reading spiritual books every night before bed), and every year I have fallen short by the second or third day.

As a pastor and spiritual director, I feel the burden even more strongly to somehow hold space for people to consider how they might spend Lent without added pressure, knowing that some will consistently honor their chosen fasts and others, like me, will leave their disciplines incomplete.

What if the invitation during Lent is one of surrender and receiving God’s nearness and love rather than one of unsuccessful attempts at checking boxes? I’m not suggesting that the disciplines of fasting are irrelevant. I think perhaps they are more relevant than we know. However, we will never accomplish fasting or spiritual practices if our goal is success. Our aim, rather, is Christ himself, and in Christ, there is abounding grace.

The Psalms remind us that actions and rituals alone do not please God. But instead, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” ¹ And not only that but in our surrender and letting go, God remains by our side. “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” ² Even as we lay down everything, not only our sin and mortality but also our deep-seated mindsets of earning God’s love through accomplishment, we are simultaneously gaining life more abundant than we can imagine.

Our disciplines in Lent, or our normal spiritual rhythms, will fail if we see them as measurements of spiritual success. So however you are marking these late winter weeks, be it a Lenten practice or not, receive the gentle reminder that it is in letting go that we find life. Jesus offers a better way – the way of letting go and thus receiving all the life, peace, and refreshment that our hearts long for. Thomas R. Kelly writes, “He asks all, but He gives all.” ³ This is the paradox of our faith.

Perhaps letting go means a fresh invitation to prayer, scripture reading, contemplative walks, or even fasting. Lean in, and let it be about the surrender and not the accomplished task. For in the surrender, we find the grace to begin again without any shame for having stopped.

¹ Psalm 51:17, NRSV
² Psalm 34:18, NRSV
³ Thomas R. Kelly. A Testament of Devotion (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1991), 22.

Alyssa Bell
Alyssa Bell is a tent-making Co-Associate Pastor at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Spokane, WA along with her husband Matthew. They have two daughters, Theresa and Susie. While serving the church, which she loves, she pursues complimentary vocational avenues like teaching and spiritual direction. Alyssa recently completed her Doctor of Ministry degree in Leadership and Spiritual Formation and is in the Spiritual Direction Training Program through the Companioning Center. She has a heart for mothers who minister, either in a church setting or elsewhere. For fun Alyssa enjoys walking, making music, reading mystery novels, and completing puzzles.