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This Joyful Season of Lent

March 21, 2021 by

Mother Teresa famously said, “Joy is the one of the best safeguards against temptation.” But if happiness is the secret to an upright life, why aren’t more of us cruising along, protected from the power of evil? Because there is a catch: to be joyful, we must first be free of guilt. To be free of guilt we must address the reason for our soul’s distress. In other words, to live joyfully, we must listen to the oft-unwelcome voice of our conscience.

In middle school, I cheated in math class. I knew full well that it was wrong, but once I figured out how to copy answers, I did it over and over. Bizarrely, I cheated unnecessarily because my grades were fine. I cheated even when I could have equaled or bettered my classmates in all honesty. I couldn’t rationally explain my motive, even to myself.

palm branchesPhoto by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

With logical thinking, cheating should never have entered my mind. I stood a real chance of being caught and shamed. I did it anyway.

There are worse things than cheating in math class. People make poor decisions, fail, or cross the line from good to evil all the time. I have. People who are seemingly faithful either knowingly or blindly stray anyway. There are so many temptations in life: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, lust. Copying answers in math class did not impair my ability to count these seven sins, nor did it erase the memory that tradition calls them “deadly.”

If life is just a series of mistaken decisions or accidental falls, who is at fault for any wrongdoing? And who can find the right road at all? If I found myself cheating for no rational reason in my childhood, what is preventing me now from binding myself ignorantly to a life of unhappiness? Why bother to resist temptation at all, especially if it does give some measure of pleasure, however fleeting?

The very human reason that most of us bother to resist temptation can be summed up in one word: guilt. Guilt is a very valuable emotion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a feeling of having committed wrong or failed in an obligation.”

Yet our modern zeitgeist condemns guilt as unnatural. I have read far more about the negative sides to guilt (there are disorders that send false feelings of guilt too frequently, but these are the exception, not the rule), than I have encountered anything about the incredibly helpful navigational tool guilt offers.

Guilt is a pain. It hurts. We wish it would go away. But like pain, guilt is actually a gift. Guilt is a common feeling that occurs in microbursts, that if listened to can save us from great unhappiness. Just as pain alerts the body to injury, so too guilt alerts the soul to distress.

Everyone wants to feel good. Almost anyone in pain will reach for relief – some even an opioid – but unless the injury is healed, no amount of painkillers is ever enough. Unless we address the source of our guilty feeling, our soul will continue to degenerate into a general or even acute malaise.

Yet people (myself included) are frequently loath to take the cure for guilt because it can mean a loss of face, humiliation, or actual punishment. Admitting guilt is often a bitter pill. Swallow your pride and confront your indiscretion anyway.

If we could know before we stray that the picture of happiness we mean to own is only an illusion, then perhaps we would not capitulate. I find strange comfort in Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41; emphasis added), because everyone does fall at one time or another. And while it helps to take care where we walk, there are moments of treachery for everyone, like patches of black ice or camouflaged sinkholes which we don’t see until it’s too late.

Finding joy in life is sometimes as simple as saying you’re sorry and changing course.The season of Lent, seen by many as forty days of unnecessary self-laceration, is really an opportunity to find joy – the joy so necessary to resist temptation. If we refuse to listen to the God-given gift of guilt, we will never notice the difference between the fleeting moment of being happy, and the permanent state of fulfillment. We may even shortchange ourselves for a miserable existence when we are eligible for a life of joy.

Finding joy in life is sometimes as simple as saying you’re sorry and changing course. Knowing I cheated in math class made me miserable. Any short-term satisfaction evaporated quickly to remorse. Microbursts of misgivings gave way to sustained regret. But my guilt eventually brought redemption, because it led to repentance. In July, after several weeks of misery, I went and told my teacher everything, an out-of-season Lenten exercise. The apology – yes, it was difficult – worked wonders for my personal wellbeing. The feeling of guilt disappeared.

The Good News Bible translates Matthew 6:13 (part of the Lord’s Prayer) as “do not bring us to hard testing.” If math class was my first hard test, I did not perform well at all. Thankfully guilt, that bothersome emotion – really, that voice of God – helped me to find a more excellent way.

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Dori Moody holding a cat

Dori Moody

Dori Moody lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in New York, with her husband Henry and their children.

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