I am not part of a church that regularly practices Lent, but the last few years I thought it would be good for me to give up something for 40 days, helping me to see my addictions and dependencies. In our indulgent, instant-gratification society, I saw the value of voluntarily depriving myself of something in order to focus more on who God is and how much I need him.
When I first started practicing Lent, I followed everyone else's suggestions and gave up a certain food or media. Those experiences were fairly useful in showing me deep-seated habits and thus made me more aware of my need for my Savior as a result.
But last year I took time to pray about what I should give up for Lent. I asked God to show me a dependency that truly was hindering my relationship with him. I thought about foods, but I'm a fairly disciplined eater, so that didn't seem to be a problem area for me. I'm also not a big media junky, so I didn't feel compelled to go that route again. As I continued to ponder it before God, I had the strong impression that I was to give up worry for 40 days.
When I told my husband my decision, he looked at me skeptically. "Aren't you supposed to give up something you enjoy for Lent?" He had a good point, but since I wasn't tied to any church tradition anyway, I felt I could practice Lent any way I wanted. And once the idea of giving up worry for 40 days began to take hold, I felt stronger and stronger that was the course for me.
The funny thing was that if you'd asked me if I was a worrier, I would have said no. I have a pretty laissez faire attitude toward difficulties. I've usually faced the big things in life with trust rather than panic. So I could understand my husband's attitude about me giving up worry. What's the big deal about that? But I felt the nudge as strongly as I've felt anything, so I went with it.
Although I felt this conviction pretty strongly, nothing prepared me for the next 40 days, which turned out to be some of the most amazing, faith-filled days of my life. And to my surprise, I found out that worry has been one of my most deep-seated, tenacious sins.
My fear of violent men consumed me.
Although I faced the big things with courage and trust, I didn't realize how I carried the burden of all the little things with constant fear and uncertainty. And many of them were wrapped up in fear of violent men. For example, within the first week of giving up worry I took a walk in a park near our house. As I was walking along the path, I came to a section that followed a road. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man in a truck was slowly keeping pace with me. Now, let me reassure you that this is a very safe park in a very safe community and that there were other people around. Nevertheless, noticing something like this would usually have put me in an all-out panic and I would have taken off running the opposite way. All my natural instincts were screaming at me to do this. But the first thing that came to mind was, I gave up worry for Lent. I do not need to worry about this. My body began to relax. While I was still aware and certainly not trying to be naÏve, I refused to allow the worry of what-if to consume me and take away the joy of my walk. When I turned the corner, the truck went on. I realized in that moment that my almost daily fears of men were mostly unfounded.
A few days later, my husband left on a two-week mission trip. Being alone in my house at night has been a long-time, deep-seated terror for me. For years whenever my husband left overnight, I'd double check that all doors and windows were locked and even stacked things at the door at night. I never wanted to go to bed when he was gone, so I'd stay up way later than I should and watch mindless TV or surf the computer until the wee hours so I didn't have to turn out all the lights and go to sleep. I'd finally drop to sleep when I simply couldn't stay up any longer. I knew this wasn't healthy, but I simply didn't know how to get over it.
This time when the anxiety began to build toward the evening, I recalled that I'd given up worry. I put my night in God's hands and refused to think about it anymore. I locked my doors and didn't give them another thought. I went to bed at my normal time and slept soundly. I cannot tell you the victory I felt. I realized I'd been trapped in a ridiculous web of fear for years. That lifetime habit of worry and terror was broken in one night and hasn't returned. Although I'd tried giving this fear over to God before, until I'd identified it as a deep-seated sin of worry, I wasn't able to find relief.
I really can trust God.
In hindsight, I see how Holy-Spirit inspired my giving up worry was for those 40 days. There were so many little things that would have driven me crazy. For example, my husband and I went to London to celebrate a milestone anniversary. While there, we took a ferry downstream from London to a tourist site. After we arrived, we decided we wanted to see two different things so we agreed to meet back at a little outdoor café we passed as we came in.
Within about 20 minutes, I lost interest in the attraction I'd gone to see and decided to head back to the café, but it wasn't there. I was sure it was in a certain direction, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I began to stop each passerby to ask if they knew of an outdoor café with orange umbrellas. No one did. The panic was rising, compounded by the fact that our cell phones didn't work in London so we had no way of contacting each other. Finally, I remembered I'd given up worry and prayed, Lord, you know where this café is. I trust you to show me. I relaxed and noticed a group of college students singing Christian songs across the street. I meandered over and listened to them awhile. As they sang, all residual panic washed away. I began looking around and saw orange umbrellas in the distance. I would never have been able to see them if I hadn't stopped to listen to the students sing. And I would never have relaxed enough to listen to them sing if I hadn't given up my panic. Most of all, I basked in the glow that God had known those college students would be on the corner just when I needed them.
From London, my husband flew to Africa for his mission trip. Normally, those two weeks would have been excruciating for me. I would have worried about every little thing concerning his safety. His prayer requests would have sent me into anxiety as I worried about each of those things. But as fears assaulted me during those two weeks, I let them drift away into God's hands. It was an amazingly relaxed and peaceful two weeks.
Worry was my thinly veiled attempt to control my circumstances.
What my 40 days without worry also taught me is that I'm an overly responsible person. I try to be so responsible that I take on everyone else's worries too. I somehow feel that if I can think my way through every difficulty and challenge I'll be able to meet them with courage. I try to imagine everything that can go wrong so I can prevent that from happening. And in the process, I've taken on the weight of the world that only God can handle. Since I've realized that about me, though, I've been able to consciously let it go and have felt amazing peace and relief.
When the 40 days were over, I didn't forget the lessons I learned. Many of the patterns and the reasons behind them are broken. I don't imagine that I'll ever have to face them as relentlessly as I did during that period of time.
Perhaps worry isn't your problem. Maybe it's something else. Take time to ask God what deep-seated pattern he wants you to give up. Concentrating on letting it go for 40 days may break the stranglehold it has on you for good.
JoHannah Reardon is the managing editor of ChristianBibleStudies.com and is a contributing editor for Kyria.com. She is also the author of seven fictional e-books and a family devotional guide. www.johannahreardon.com.