I sometimes find myself getting flustered about Lent, unsure about what it’s supposed to be accomplishing within me. I think this is mostly because I start worrying about my emotions, whether or not I’m inwardly responding with right and authentic feelings. In general, influenced by books such as N.T. Wright’s After You Believe and lots of C.S. Lewis, I’ve realized this kind of self-centered focus on my emotions is, in fact, the unhelpful leftovers of the Romantic movement of the 19th century and the Existentialist movement in the early 20th. Not to say that our emotions are not important barometers of our inward condition, but they are not the measure of our virtue, our Christlike character. As Wright states,
“Virtue. . . is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t ‘come naturally’ — and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required ‘automatically,’ as we say. . . Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become ‘second nature.’ “
It is a great encouragement to me that I can make virtuous choices, by the power of the Holy Spirit, whether or not I feel like it. In fact, as Lewis puts it, that fixation on figuring out whether my emotions are authentic and right can actually be a way of making me focus on myself rather than God. In the Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape exhorts his nephew:
“Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.”
Later on in the book, Screwtape teaches his nephew Wormwood about the “law of Undulation:” that, for human beings, the only constant is neverending flux and change in emotions, a perpetual journey through troughs and peaks.
“Now it may surprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else. . . He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them with emotional sweetness and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs– to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best.”
If you are also offering your Lenten disciplines to the Lord in a “state of dryness,” I hope these quotations can be an encouragement to you as well.