The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Last week I ended a series of sermons on change by suggesting that time is one of God's greatest gifts to us. It's given in the very act of creation itself. When space boiled out in rapid expansion from the singular moment of the big bang fifteen billion years ago, it brought movement, change, development, and time. It's a gift because although the movement of time inevitably brings pain and loss, it's also what makes possible uniquely good things: some of the greatest virtues and pleasures of love, compassion, courage, adventure, working towards desirable goals, can only come about through a process of time and change. Without time and change a child could never grow to stand, walk, laugh, love; lovers could never come to embrace another, then stay together through thick and thin to deepen that love; without time and change the sea would never soothe our souls with its mesmerizing movement; the sun would never surprise us from behind scudding clouds; birds would never sing in new seasons. Without time and change life would be static, sterile, purposeless. With time, life lives!
But now comes Lent. This austere season we've just entered which seems to grudge the gifts of time. Yes, we've been given this glorious moving landscape of time and change to inhabit: lands flowing with milk and honey and wine to gladden the heart, human partners to love, spiritual gifts of freedom of choice; all this is given: but then in Lent God also seems to give us this counter-narrative that we must sometimes deny ourselves these gifts, exercise restraint. Not a theme I enjoy hearing or preaching, but the Gospel impales me on it. It's there. I can't evade it. It seems it is the inevitable flipside of time. There is something about living in time which means we sometimes have to wait, travel a long difficult road, before we can fully enter and enjoy its best fruits. It's a frustration known by anyone who wants an instantly satisfying personal relationship, or a political leader wanting to create a new world order quickly. We discover it's not possible. We just cannot have some of the best fruits of time without its travail: it requires a discipline of waiting as well has the pleasures of having.
Why is this? Simple experience tells us one practical reason. To rush to possess something or someone too quickly will often damage the very thing we think we want, particularly in human relationships; in social reality too. Snatch at power in the wrong way, even in a good cause, and we diminish and disempower others as we do it and so destroy the very cause we were fighting for. Grab at anything good greedily and we destroy the very qualities which make it good (like downing a bottle of good wine too quickly). Likewise with the all good things of the kingdom of God, whether its human relationships, its political goals, or simply its ordinary human pleasures; these just cannot be given instantly, cannot by-pass time, and still be the thing we actually want and value. And so that's one reason we need restraint.
But there's also another reason, a deeper reason of the spirit. It's only through a measure of restraint and denial that God's grace can overcome something very particular in us which has to be overcome: our tendency (which we call sin) to have disproportionate desires for some things ('inordinate' desire, as the scholastics said). That is, when our desires, even if for good things, so totally fill our horizon that they exclude everything else. As when a parent loves a child possessively, obsessively; or when an extremist loves his cause fanatically; or when someone is utterly driven by career ambition; or by any sort of extreme self-love. It is when our loves and desires are distorted into lust; when they've become entirely exclusive, blocking all other loves. What the call for restraint does is halt us in our tracks to help us see this, resist it, and remind us that only God himself is a safe object of total desire because only God already includes all other good things too.
This necessary restraint and discipline does not mean we have to dilute all our desires and eradicate our enjoyments, as some forms of Buddhism require. God in creation has given us things richly to enjoy, so desire for good things can never be wrong in itself. It does mean, however, that our desires and loves sometimes have to be re-ordered, freed from their contaminating possessiveness or exclusiveness, before they can be given back to us to be enjoyed all the more, given back 'one hundredfold', as Jesus promised.
This idea of taking time to re-train desires is not fashionable, not in an age which prizes instant gratification and self-expression and dislikes all discipline. Yet it's long been believed necessary. From classic Greek thought onwards, philosophy has pressed its importance. The trouble with philosophy alone is that it's mostly tried this by reason, and reason has little clout in re-ordering passion: what Lenten faith offers is a different sort of schooling in which our wanting is re-ordered not just by reason but by immersion in stories of faith and practices of prayer and worship, which go deeper than the rational mind, and through which God himself can help us more.
To be sure, even from within this deeper nursery of faith we'll all still fail from time to time, our desires will trip us up, we'll need forgiveness, and thank God that grace of forgiveness is always given! But don't forget this other grace too: the discipline of faith: the gift of restraint which can help pre-empt some failures and which, in this world of time change and sin, actually helps us enjoy our desires more—not less—which is always God's ultimate purpose for us.