The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and God’s ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. (Psalm 34.15-16)
Although Lent’s wilderness is a metaphor, if we pursue the experience properly, much of what happens to us reflects a desert existence. The journey’s demands foster a kind of primal instinct that seeks to conserve energy by eliminating unnecessary burdens. Many have compared Lent to a refiner’s fire, suggesting the desert’s heat and sandblasts burn off impurities so that we stand pure and unmasked before the cross. I believe this is true. There are moments during every Lent—whether it’s our first or fiftieth—when we become aware that we’ve been relieved of detrimental thoughts and habits by force of nature. But if Lent is nothing more than voluntary exposure to the elements, our participation in the process becomes incidental. If all we must do is show up and allow Lent to work on us, then what do we learn?
I prefer to think of Lent as a parallel process during which the Spirit does Its work on us, while we also work through various conflicts and cycles to discover what we no longer need. I see it as a seasonal adjustment that rejuvenates our growth, so that we can leave the desert stronger, healthier, and freer. Without a doubt, the Lent pilgrim quickly discovers her/his trek will require dropping things along the way. The journey is too arduous for excess baggage, and by all means, we should travel light. Yet the wilderness is, above everything else, a wasteland—a place where we can consciously discard encumbrances that impede our future progress. Some things we can carry into Lent with the express purpose of walking away from them. We might think of these burdens as emotional landfill. And, though it may sound unkind to put it like this, much of what we need to lose revolves around people and relationships that weaken our lives.
Tainted and Deadening
We’ve heard so much about “toxic” relationships and people that we give the notion little thought. “Toxic” has become a sort of grab bag we keep handy for tossing away what we don’t like. How many of us have friends who abandoned relationships before they even got off the ground, saying, “He was toxic,” or “She was deadly? We’ve become such efficient toxicity diagnosticians that we objectify who and what’s going on in our lives as if we’re daytime TV therapists. Maybe I’m just blessed to be an exception to the rule. But my dealings with authentically toxic people and deadly relationships have been few and far between. What I’ve come across more often have been tainted people and deadening relationships—people whose negativity and warped views make me toxic, relationships whose chemistry numbs me to God’s touch and the gentle flow of human affection. While I would never judge folks who trigger these responses as “evil,” what they do to me most certainly is evil and, in the end, I am accountable for allowing that to happen.
It’s the fabled frog-and-scorpion scenario, isn’t it? Our desire to show kindness exposes us to risks of getting stung. And when we ask those who sting us why they did it, their only answer is, “It’s my nature.” If we’re wise, we’ll recognize that these people—and the relationships they draw us into—do evil to us. Not because they hate us, necessarily; indeed, we’re more likely to be harmed out of twisted love than outright hate. Not because they take pleasure in hurting us; indeed, most people who habitually infect others with poisonous ideas and emotions live in states of perpetual remorse. Not because they’re morally bankrupt; indeed, most people who visit evil on the world act out of a sense of moral superiority. (Does “love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin” ring a bell?) Yet our awareness that much of the pain and sorrow we endure comes from tainted people and deadening relationships that unintentionally wound us doesn’t change the fact that the harm they do is evil. And Psalm 34 can teach us a valuable lesson—as well as offer us invaluable advise for our Lent journey—if we recognize evildoing that poisons and numbs us.
We Can’t Quite Cut the Cords
In verses 15 and 16 we read, “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and God’s ears are open to their cry. The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.” God is watching us, all of us, good and bad. God sees that our goodness creates vulnerabilities to others’ diseases. God hears our cries of pain and heartbreak. These situations and symptoms are commonplace in Spirit-led lives. In verse 17-19, the psalmist says, “When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from their troubles. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” We accept that good we do will sometimes be returned with evil, and we look to God for rescue and relief when that happens. But it fascinates me that before the psalmist expounds on God’s care for us, he pauses in verse 16 to remind us of God’s response to those who do harm. God turns away from them, the poet says, and cuts off their memory. Before seeing about us, God remembers to forget those who’ve injured us. That doesn’t mean God no longer loves them. It doesn’t say God’s decided they’re not worth saving. It means as long as they persist in their tainted, deadening ways, God pays them no mind.
Lent opens us to the possibility of leaving tainted people and deadening relationships in the wasteland. It’s as much about remembering what we must forget as what we must always keep in mind. There are tainted people who make us toxic. They are how they are and will remain so if they choose not to repent. There are deadening relationships that numb us to God’s presence. They will continue to do so as long as they survive without God’s intervention. Many times we detach ourselves from unhealthy people and relationships, yet we can’t quite cut the cords of memory. But we must. If God can do it, so can we. Remembering to forget is part of God’s rescue protocol. If we’re earnest about traveling Lent’s desert in search of God’s ways, we should remember to forget anything that poisons and anesthetizes us to God’s guidance.
Lent enables to us bring unhealthy relationships and people into the desert with us for the sole purpose of leaving them behind.
Postscript: Question 6
Pop psychologists like to talk about “addictions” to “toxic relationships”—but I think the question is more basic (and hence more complex) than that. What compels us to think we must indulge poisonous personalities and situations to prove we love someone? Are we trying to prove we’re stronger than they? Or are we stronger when we remember to forget unhealthy individuals and relationships?