Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart. (Joel 2:12)
We hear this passage, taken from the Old Testament prophet Joel, at Mass every Ash Wednesday, just as we begin our forty-day journey of Lent. For the people of Israel, it was a call to turn to God in the midst of a national crisis. Hurry! Come to the Temple and beg the Lord to save us from this catastrophe!
For us, Joel’s words are more personal. They urge us to turn to God with our whole hearts so that he can save us each individually—not from an external disaster, but from the sin that clouds our relationship with him. Joel’s words call us to examine our lives and find the ways we have wandered from the Lord or have hurt one another. They also ask us to open our eyes to the ways that God wants to bless us and draw us closer to him during this season. In short, these words capture the spirit of Lent perfectly.
You would think that, with such a gracious invitation, we would look at Lent as one of the most blessed, uplifting times of the year. But for all the promise of this season, we can still be tempted to look at it as a time of gloom and sadness. Maybe we focus on what we have to give up instead of what God wants to give us. Or we might think about our sins more than God’s mercy or fret over our need to change rather than rejoicing in his overflowing grace.
Let’s try to approach Lent a little differently this year. In this issue, we want to look at it as a time of promise and hope. We want to look at the call to turn to the Lord as an invitation to discover something new and uplifting—about ourselves and about God. We want to look at the goodness of God, his work of freeing us from sin, and his invitation to receive his love, mercy, and grace this Lent.
A Good God. The first and most important thing to remember is that God is good. We are used to saying that God loves us or that God is love, but by saying it so often, we risk losing sight of how radical this statement is. So it’s helpful every now and then to consider his love from a different angle—from his goodness.
When we say that God is good, we are repeating what St. John considered “the message” that Jesus commissioned him and the other apostles to preach: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We are also echoing St. James when he called God “the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change” (James 1:17). God’s goodness toward us never changes.
The prophet Joel knew the goodness of God as well. In the midst of his urgent plea for Israel to turn to the Lord, he spoke words of assurance and promise: “Return to the Lord, your God. For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). He wanted the people to know that God wasn’t the cause of their troubles; he was the cure! God loved the people too much to leave them to face the crisis alone. Come to me, he called. Let me help you and deliver you.
This Lent you will hear again the call to turn to the Lord with your whole heart—a call to fasting and repentance. You might imagine these words coming from a harsh judge preparing to punish you for your misdeeds. But imagine them coming instead from a Father who loves his children and who mourns over how they have distanced themselves from him. Imagine them coming from a good God who created you and who has blessed you “with every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3). Your God loves you. He is goodness itself, and he wants nothing but good for you. Can you picture the look of love on his face as he calls out to you?
A Good Creation. A clear night sky filled with stars. The touch of a cool breeze on a fine spring day. The sound of water as it tumbles through a stream on its way to a river. Who hasn’t stood in awe at the beauty of the natural world? Who hasn’t felt the same way the psalmist felt when he looked up and proclaimed, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:2)?
We believe that God in his goodness made this beautiful world out of nothing. But even more astounding, we believe that he fashioned this world into a home just for us—for the men and women he would create out of love. The Book of Genesis tells us that God placed our first parents in a lush garden and charged them with cultivating the earth and making it fruitful. He blessed them as husband and wife and charged them to be fruitful as well. He gave them everything they needed for happiness in this new world—a loving relationship with him and with each other; the joy of bearing children; meaningful labor; and a safe, beautiful environment that would always reflect his love and care for them.
Take some time this Lent to ask the Holy Spirit to show you how all the beauty, vastness, and majesty of the world points to a loving, generous God. Ask him to open the eyes of your heart so that you cry out in joy, “All the earth falls in worship before you; they sing of you, sing of your name!” (Psalm 66:4).
A “Very Good” People. Not only did God create the world we live in, but he created each of us individually. We are not the random result of evolution. Unlike any other creature on earth, we are made in God’s own image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). We have gifts and abilities that no other creature has. Using our gifts of reason, memory, and imagination, we can rise above our environment and determine our own future. We can fall in love. We can imagine new possibilities for ourselves and each other. And most important, we can have a relationship with God that gradually transforms our heart and mind.
We can see the goodness of humanity every day in family life, in parishes, in hospitals and schools, and in community centers. We see it in people caring for the poor and needy. We see it in all the unnoticed acts of kindness that happen every day. We see it especially when two or more people gather in Jesus’ name.
Of course, we also see evil. Sometimes it can seem as if it’s all around us. It can even seem as if evil is just as powerful as good—a natural force that is just as much a part of us as goodness. But our faith tells us that there is only one “principle” in creation: God’s goodness. “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31).
It’s this goodness—this innocence and wholeness—that God wants to deepen in us as we turn to him in Lent. He doesn’t want to condemn us for our sins. He wants to remove our sins so that the beauty of his creation can shine through us all the more. We might shy away from the idea of repentance and self-denial because it sounds so difficult. But these are avenues of grace for us. They are good gifts from a good God who wants to come into our hearts more deeply.
The Last Word. God is good, and everything he created is good. Remember this when you think about your resolutions this Lent. God is asking you to deny yourself some of the pleasures of life so that you can focus on him more fully. This doesn’t mean that these pleasures are bad. There’s nothing wrong, for example, with dessert after dinner. God is asking you to give up something good so that you can receive something better: Jesus, who gave up the goodness of heaven in order to save you from sin.
If you get discouraged by the sin you see around you—or even by the sin in your own heart—remember this truth as well: evil doesn’t have to win out, and sin doesn’t have to have the last word. Especially during Lent, as you turn to the Lord, you can experience Jesus’ victory over sin as your own victory. You can find the extra grace to say no to a particular sin or to finally forgive someone who has hurt you.
We have a good, good God, and he has made us “very good.” May the grace of this Lenten season bring us even closer to him and help us display his goodness in our lives.