March 2021

Liking yourself for Lent

My previous career as a housemaster in a boarding school taught me how much time teenagers spend looking at thei peers and thinking ‘I wish I could do what he or she can do’, or, ‘I wish I could be him or her’ or even - especially sadly - ‘I wish I could look like him or her’. My experience as a human being teaches me how much time adults spend doing exactly the same thing: they are just a bit better at disguising the fact.

It is also sadly true that if you were to ask anyone to list their faults and failings, you would very quickly be presented with a long list, while if you were to ask for a list of people’s strengths and talents, you would be met with an embarrassed silence. 

Now, it is obviously the case that, if you are inside any institution, you can become far more aware of its faults than if you are outside, but I think that, when we are dealing with looking at ourselves, there is a bit of a problem, and it is a problem especially exacerbated at this time of year.

The season of Lent can all too easily turn into a season of self-loathing as people somehow feel encouraged to look at themselves and number all their sins. On its own, that is about as spiritually useful as giving up booze, fags and chocolate. It is a classic instance of focussing on means rather than ends. And the ends for Lent should be quite simple. For Lent is the season when we prepare ourselves to follow Christ to the foot of the cross and beyond. And, yes, that does mean that we need to examine the ways in which we stop ourselves from following Christ - our lack of love, our looking inwards, our focus on money and possessions etc etc - but it is so important that we do not leave it at that. We need to look at the ways in which we can follow Christ more closely. And there are all sorts of positive things we can do for that: we can read the Bible - and, as I say every year, reading a particular gospel is so helpful -  we can pray more, we can give ourselves time for quiet reflection - even the lockdown has its advantages! - we can do more for others, and, yes, if we feel that giving something up will help us, then, by all means, give something up. Alternatively, if we feel that taking something up will help, then take it up.

The crucial thing, however, is that these are all means to an end. And all of those means will be quite useless if we think that we do not deserve the end: if we think we are unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness, if we find ourselves unable to be at peace with ourselves. That is why how we look at ourselves is so important, and why we must not just think of our faults and failings but also of our strengths and talents. And they are there in abundance.

Our written church services often refer to ‘Almighty God’, and it is becomes second nature to think that, if God is almighty, then He can do anything and everything. But that is not true. God cannot hate, God cannot pare his nails, God cannot comb his hair, God cannot make an omelette, and, most importantly, God cannot make rubbish. And when God made each and every one of us, he did not make rubbish. He planted seeds of goodness and talents in each and every one of us: all we need to do is to make them grow. And we cannot do that if we do not accept that they are there. And it is important we should do that, for all those seeds are there to help us play your own individual and special part in the growing of God’s kingdom here on earth. Helping that kingdom to grow is part of what it means to follow Christ.

So, yes, let us use this wonderful season of Lent for self-examination, but not to find out just what we are doing wrong; let us use it much more to find out what we could do right. Let us learn to value the gifts and talents God has planted in us; let us be determined to use those gifts and talents for the benefits of God’s kingdom; let us thank God for the gifts he has given us; and, above all, let us value ourselves, be at peace with ourselves and like being ourselves. For, without that, we can do nothing.