Growing up Catholic, I spent Ash Wednesdays acknowledging that I knew there was dirt on my head and dodging the well-intentioned motherly figures with their saliva-covered thumbs. I would explain to other youth that the "dirt" gracing the spot between my eyes was ashes. After looking at the wide-eyed expressions, I had to follow up with "ashes from the burning of palms." Then, I would quickly do a one-eighty and walk the other way down the hall to avoid further questioning.
As a child, I didn't understand the true meaning or the symbolism of the Day of Ashes. I knew it was marked with a solemn candlelit service, a promise to abstain from something or fasting, and our tradition left us wearing ashes until we washed our faces before bed. And I knew this day kicked off the Lent season and came after weeks of revelry here in south Alabama.
I grew up near Mobile, which is the birthplace of the first official Mardi Gras parade. Sure, there is a heated debate about the origination of Mardi Gras festivities, but we all know the truth – New Orleans was second! Everyone has Mardi Gras Monday and Fat Tuesday marked on their calendars because local businesses and schools close, and well, moon pies and king cake are everywhere.
But, Ash Wednesday typically only shows up on the liturgical calendar of Catholics and Orthodox. Regardless, any Christian can benefit from the sacrificial nature and self-discipline of the Lent season.
I now know the day is one of mourning, reflection, repentance, and forgiveness.
Given how it falls after our local party season, there can be a whole bag of faults at the ready. I'm speaking theoretically here, of course, not from experience. But often, our sins are not so obvious. Ash Wednesday or any other day for the matter is a good day for all Christians to pause and check the condition of our heart, mind, and soul (Romans 7:21-25).
Let's look at a few ways we can apply the principles of Ash Wednesday to our lives regardless of our denomination or the day of the week.
Give Yourself a Personal Evaluation
If you have ever worked for a large company, you might have endured the period of employee evaluations. Usually, your superior gives you a written report card, and you have a conference to discuss the grades. If that wasn't stressful enough, some sneaky fellow thought it would be great to let the employees grade themselves, also known as personal evaluations.
These tricky forms have to be filled out with the utmost care and caution, with just the right amount of optimism but not too heavy on the bragging side. You write about your strengths, and then you fill out a section about your weaknesses, politely sugar-coated as "areas of self-improvement." It's akin to looking your mom in the eye and confessing you stole the last cookie out of the jar.
As painful as I find the self-evaluations, I acknowledge the benefit this approach could do for my sinful nature. Admitting that we are all sinners who will never completely stop sinning this side of heaven, no matter how minor the offense, is a great place to start (Romans 3:23).
Admittedly, I will often pray to God to forgive my sins in a blanket approach. When I do this, I'm not recognizing the hairline cracks that can make way for evil to seep in. I'm glancing over the details, ignoring the wisdom found in Proverbs 4:23-27.
"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil."
When I intentionally reflect on the areas in my life that are sinful and need attention, I am proactively guarding my heart. It may be a sharp tongue when I spoke with my husband earlier, spending too much time at the water cooler, or grappling with impatience towards my children. Then I can earnestly approach Jesus with prayer and take directed steps to amend my ways before they become unmanageable.
Place Repentance on Speed Dial
My body posture slumps over as I bear the weight of my iniquities during reflection. But God doesn't want us stuck ruminating in this self-imposed pity and guilt as we beg the judge to bang the gravel and rescue us from the prosecutor in the courtroom of our mind. Instead, we seek the Holy Spirit to lead us to repentance and change our ways.
Confession doesn't usually result in an overnight transformation – as you know, old habits die hard. However, when we repent, we humbly and apologetically come before the Lord, take responsibility, and change our minds about our sins. This leads us to take actionable steps and discipline to walk a righteous path. "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord" (Acts 3:19).
Although our salvation is alone a gracious gift from God based on our faith, as noted in Ephesians 2:8-9 and is not dependent on repentance, faith and repentance are inseparable. The act of genuine confession is surrendering to the will of God and His call of holiness and obedience (1 Peter 1:13-25). Complete purity is not possible because we sin, and that is where Jesus came into the picture, "For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy" (Hebrews 10:14).
Find Freedom in His Forgiveness
If you keep reading in Hebrews 10:15-18, "The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First, he says: 'This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.' Then he adds: 'Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.' And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary."
The Lord's compassionate, gracious, and abundant love for us reveals he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our immoralities (Psalm 103:8–12). Through forgiveness, He also chooses to forget our sins, which is the ultimate act of freeing us from the shackles of shame and guilt.
Not only do we find freedom in God's forgiveness of our sins, but we also find it when we forgive others and ask for forgiveness ourselves. I can't put it more eloquently than the words by Lewis B. Smedes, "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."
Friend, use God's gift of forgiveness and unlock the door of your imprisonment.
Keep Reflection, Repentance, and Forgiveness on the Daily Calendar
If you ask me my favorite word, undoubtedly 'freedom' would spill from my mouth before you could finish your question. I even affectionately call our boat that my husband restored Freedom. Not only is the feeling of the salt air and gentle roll of the waves a freeing feeling, but we are also now free of a two-year-long restoration – that is, until the next project!
Freedom always comes at a price – so let's not allow our busyness and negligence to get in the way of accepting His redemption. The acts of penance, forgiveness, sacrifices, and self-discipline are not meant for only the six-and-a-half-week period of Lent. They help us grow in our spiritual maturity and daily draw close to the Father.
Originally published on ibelieve.com