This Lent, I've been reflecting on Jesus' answer to the Pharisee who asked what the greatest commandment is. Jesus answered, "...love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22). Observing Lent has a tendency to boil life down to what is spiritually essential, and I love the simplicity of Jesus' teaching here; the main goal of life is to accomplish two things, loving God and loving man. But the simplicity can be deceitful. It's a really, really difficult commandment to follow, and to do well requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. If that doesn't register with you, go ahead, try to give over one entire day to loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to treating everyone around you exactly as you wish to be treated. It's possible it might be easy for a day or two. You might hit one of those days where you get such a good night's sleep that you wake up early to pray, the kids are at grandma's, there are no homeless men standing outside your window at long red lights, and your husband volunteers to clean the kitchen after dinner. But those days are flukes. It won't be easy the next day, or the day after that when you spend your whole day exhausted and positively certain the universe is set up to demand you satisfy the wants and needs of others as long as they directly contradict with your own wants and needs.
It's a given that we can't follow Jesus' command to the letter, otherwise we wouldn't need him--we would already be perfect. So I can't help but wonder, how much loving God counts as loving God with all my heart? Can I love him just a little in the morning, not at all in the afternoon, but make it up in the evening? I'm not really prepared to answer that question, but as I've been thinking about the answer over Lent, it has occurred to me that this is why we need to observe Lent--because we are really bad at loving God and our neighbor completely with every deed and word when it requires personal sacrifice. We need times of penance such as Lent to train ourselves to love and obey God all the time.
The fact is, loving God and humanity is so often a discipline, and not something that just comes naturally from an inner ever-flowing spring of affection. You have to make yourself do it, and what is Lent but practicing making yourself do (or not do) something? Jesus likes to compare his relationship with his church to a marriage, and in marriage, you don't constantly feel enamored with your spouse; you often have to choose to love them with actions that are a personal sacrifice. It can seem pointless to deny ourselves whatever small pleasure in life we've decided to give up during Lent. It's so tempting to negate the value of giving up sugar, or movies, or whatever, and think 'oh, but what Jesus wants is my heart, not this arbitrary sacrifice, and he has my heart already...so I'll just skip the penance thing'. But sacrifice is an essential discipline in following Jesus, and I think Lent trains us towards a sacrificial lifestyle. So much of loving God and fellow human beings really goes against our nature- we tend to love when it's convenient. Lent is inconvenient, and I think if we give up some of our personal vices and pleasures with the idea that we will be molded into a closer likeness of Jesus, God will honor our choices and give us what we desire.