Lent: Nike or Jesus?

Back in 1988, Nike produced the first commercials with their new slogan: “Just do it.”  They featured images of people doing amazing things in the world of sports through determination, discipline, and lots of hard work. The message was clear:  What are you waiting for, you lazy idiot.  Just. Do. It.

Sure, it will take time and effort.  There may be pain involved, and it certainly won’t be easy.  When is anything worth doing ever easy, though?  Just do it. Performancism.  And the message underneath?  You can do it—the Gospel of Achievement and Success.

Since my ordination as an Anglican priest way back in 1994, I have been privileged to read the following words to the congregation committed to my care:

I invite you… in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self- examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Now, these are good words — and good practices.  And yet an unthinking acceptance of this invitation can lead us in a profoundly un-Gospel direction.  Can you still hear the hidden messages?  Just do it.  You can do it.  Performancism and Success.

If I’m honest, in my early years as a Christian, Lent was a lot like those old Nike commercials.  Pumped-up on baby Christian faith, I was going to struggle. I was going to battle the world, flesh, and the devil.  I was going to make something of myself in Lent.  I was going to show God just what a good disciple I was.

Thing is, it never worked.  I failed at my disciplines more often than not.  The vow to be forgiving would go to the wayside after a tough day at work, the promise to abstain from sweets would be ruined by the Girl Scout cookies sold every year at this time.  Far from proving what a good Christian I was, more often than not I proved my lack of self-discipline—not only my inability to abstain from Snickerdoodle cookies—but also the more damaging things like unforgiveness, judgementalism, and pride. I wasn’t so much a “super” Christian as an average sinner.

Lent didn’t improve me, it just made me feel bad.

As you will see below, I finally learned to make peace with Lent—and even enjoy it. So much so that it can be easy for me to forget the disappointment of those early Lenten seasons I experienced, back when I was ashamed that Just Do It always became Just Didn’t.

It is my life here in Africa that has reminded me of that early disappointment and shame.  Not a month goes by without me hearing a phrase that makes Lenten disappointment seem small by comparison.  A phrase that’s meant as encouragement but is actually a condemnation.

It’s when the preacher asks the congregation, “Will you make heaven?”  That’s the way it’s said in Nigeria at least, although I’ve heard some form of it in most every African congregation I’ve visited, and in many churches in the West as well.  Will you make heaven?  Are you righteous enough? Good enough?  Do you tithe enough?  Have faith enough?  Do you speak in tongues?  Whatever the follow-up question, the hidden messages are the same:  Just Do It.  Performancism and Success.  Make heaven guys- it’s all up to you.

This is profoundly disturbing to me. Why?  Because they can’t. Ever. No matter how hard they try, “Just Do It” becomes “Just Didn’t.”  I mean, if I can’t even stay away from sweets for 40 days, how am I going to earn my salvation? If I can’t love my neighbour or at least not say that angry word, how will I ever “make heaven?”

In asking this question, the church may think that she challenges her people to try harder—to prove their holiness—and yet what really happens is we invite them to fear and despair.

The Good News is that may be what some preachers ask of us, but it is never what Christ asks of us.  We have a strong God who pays the price for his weak and faltering children because he loves them. He is not in the “Just Do It” business, and as he said that good, Good Friday, “It is finished.” The best answer we can give those preachers when they ask if we’ll make heaven is “Yes, by the blood of Jesus shed on my behalf.”  Or in the words of the old hymn, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross, I cling.”

Lent, then, isn’t a time of “making heaven.” It’s a yearly reminder that we can’t.  I have come to see that my failure in my disciplines is precisely the point of my Lenten walk.  I can’t be kind, be giving, resist chocolate- or whatever. This helps me to be humble, to remember that my righteousness is as filthy rags, unsuited to a holy God.  I am dust, and to dust, I shall return.

So making heaven?  Out of the question—unless there is Jesus. And friends, the Good News is there is Jesus—for you and for me.  So practice your disciplines in Lent if that’s your thing or at any time of the year. But don’t fall into the trap of ever thinking you will accomplish them perfectly. Instead, let your failure—the on-and-off way we are always beginning again in our Christian discipleship remind you that you have a saviour who died for you just the way you are and will move you into greater fruitfulness on his timetable, not yours.

In other words, fail this Lent—and rejoice, because heaven is already made.

About the author

Leslie Martin

The Rev. Dr. Leslie Martin is an Archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin (Church of Nigeria), where he serves in the role of Canon Theologian. He also is a Lecturer at Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo. He has many other titles and accomplishments that are really uninteresting to most people. A missionary educator from the United States, his interests include applying the Theology of the Cross to present-day culture, Liturgics, and how theology can enrich addiction recovery ministries. His most important title is husband to Kate, his beloved wife.

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