Saturday, March 12, 2011

Devotional for the First Day of Lent

Ash Wednesday

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

. . . steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. (Psalm 32:10b)

It bothers me that I can relate to the Pharisee at least as often as I can relate to the tax-collector in Jesus’ story. Regarding others with contempt—even those who have violated trust or committed serious offenses—requires a trusting of the self that allows me to assure myself that I could never be like “other people.”

But I am.

In Jesus’ great sermon in Matthew chapter five, he makes the claim that people who harbor anger have something in common with murderers, and that those who entertain lust have something to share with adulterers: The same state of the heart. Jesus seems to cut to the heart, so to speak, of what is really at the center of human desire.

The path to greatness and the achievement of significance is found in self-trust, we are often told. There are enough books on reaching one’s potential, capitalizing on strengths, grasping the riches of the market, or even finding the secrets to capturing the riches of God. But Scripture doesn’t offer self-trust as a way forward for the people of God. The way forward is trust in God.
One of the signs of trusting God is confession. In confession, we open ourselves to God, offering up our vulnerability and shoving aside the false protection that is self-trust. The psalmist sings,

While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. (32:3)

Self-trust is costly. Surrounding ourselves with a false self of protection and strength is corrosive to the heart. Opening ourselves to God, by contrast, brings life and the embrace of God’s love.

One of my confessions to God is that I am, indeed like other people—even like the worst of offenders. I have a heart that is capricious and selfish, and until I open myself to God, I run the risk of trusting in a self that is ultimately untrustworthy. And so I confess.

Along with St. Augustine, I can now declare,

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

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