The practice of not being God
I have always been fascinated with the idea of religious practices, customs and traditions that have been used to give people a guideline or template for how best to live their lives in the face of mystery and challenge. On Wednesday, March 1st millions of people around the world will mark Ash Wednesday and begin an age-old custom or be observing the season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter.
During Lent, it is customary for people to practice some sort of self-denial in recognition of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted to test God, to deny God and to assert his own power. Lent is supposed to be a season of reflection and self-discipline when people willingly give up things of pleasure to pay homage to the sacrifice and suffering Christ. When I was a child growing up in the Catholic Church, Lent was a time we children were tempted to deny ourselves chocolates.
Could we go an entire six weeks without eating sweets? That seemed the ultimate test of our love for God. And I am here to tell you that I am grateful for the concept of grace and forgiveness. Because I failed that test every single time.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve remained fascinated with Lent, just as I am fascinated with Ramadan, another season that invites believers to deny themselves in a collective effort to become better human beings and more committed followers of God. What is it about self-denial that has the supposed ability to change people, to make them better, to cause them to pay more attention to doing what is considered moral and good? And why give a whole 40 days observance to it?
Human nature is fickle and the older we get I think if we were honest with ourselves, many of us might admit that we are far more capable of acting and living in ways that our younger less experienced selves might have judged and admonished. Being a decent human being is not as easy as it looks. And yet, I like to imagine that this invitation into communal self-denial, into communal fasting and praying and disciplined reflection is not just about doing these things just to do them, in hopes of some magical transformation of personhood, or being bestowed with some false angelic halo of light.
Rather, I’ve come to see it as more of an invitation into a bigger narrative than one I could conceive of for myself. The faith stories we adhere to and the practices that go along with them are reminders that we always have choices about how to live our lives and that there are a variety of stories we can choose to become a part of, to weave ourselves into and accept as viable and life-giving. They are also practices that speak to hope and in a bizarre way to a certain perspective of freedom.
To choose to enter into these faith stories and to choose to adhere to their practices is to choose to believe that we do not always know what is best for ourselves nor do we have ultimate control over our lives. The bizarre freedom is in the letting go of imagining that we ourselves are gods. It is not a denial of agency, but an affirmation of mystery.
We practice these customs and traditions and hope that they might shape us in bits and pieces over time into more of the sort of people that can trust in goodness, who can offer goodness to one another and who can live as though we do believe in a God who has all of our best interests in mind. And if that were the case, maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time playing God, deciding whose lives are worth more than others, deciding which people get to belong to our offices, our clubs, our countries, judging other people’s circumstances while secretly living with our own, imagining that our wealth and status give us the right to act above the law and without consequence and curtailing the civil liberties and freedoms of others. In essence, playing God in ways that actually only make the world a more devastating place to live for so many people.