I first celebrated lent back in 2007 when I found myself the only protestant in our 4 person apartment. After two years in college, I was feeling a bit adrift in my faith. I knew I believed in Christ, and him crucified for my sins. I wasn't sure how I felt about church, pastors, campus ministries or even many other Christians. So, clearly, partaking in an ancient tradition from one of our country's most heavily criticized denominations was the next logical step.
Seriously though, I'd really come to respect my roommates. They patiently answered my questions about why they would be observing lent and didn't treat it as something to be bragged about. The idea of spending time in self examination and prayer, giving up something that hindered my relationship with God and using that time to draw near to him appealed to me and to the private nature my faith had taken on in the absence of trust in a church.
For my fast, I gave up recreational internet (facebook, myspace, blogs, news, etc.) and spent close to an hour most days in prayer and scripture reading. God used it to transform me. I was able to see many sins in my life I'd been blinded to before. I saw bitterness over the church experiences of my growing up years. I saw my avoidance of church and the people in it was just another form of pride. I saw that in my unforgiveness I was ignoring all I had been forgiven of in Christ. I had made my bitterness an idol.
Lent laid the groundwork for many changes that would take place in my life over the next year and gave me the humility I needed to heal my broken relationship with the church. With the help of some extra loving church members I came to be thankful for the company of other believers again. Through a patient and humble pastor I finally understood what a good shepherd should look like.
My struggles are different now, yet the fundamental problem is still there. My heart is an idol manufacturing plant. I think whether we are secular or religious, Christian or atheist, there's a temptation to try and redeem ourselves through works. Our job, our children, our hobbies, our political positions, our finances and our marriages can all become alters where we bow down, worship and receive judgement as to whether our lives are meaningful.
Lent is a time where I ask God to show me where I'm trying to find my self-salvation. It's a time to be reminded that salvation only comes from one place and His yoke is easy and His burden is light. If I'm worn down from struggling and striving, then I'm missing how very sufficient Christ's life, death and resurrection is to transform me into his same image, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). Yes, giving up something often helps me see this more clearly, but to me, the relief is in knowing that nothing I can do (or abstain from) can add to Christ's completed work on my behalf.