At some point along the way, he said clearly and candidly to his companions, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships (thlipses) to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22). The comment was certainly an understatement, given all the difficulties he had endured during his missionary journeys. As I think about that apostolic observation, however, it becomes very clear that the teaching of Paul merely mirrored the Lord’s command to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order to be numbered among his disciples. It is also the perfect explanation for the deepest grace of the holy season of Lent.
The Greek word, thlipsis (singular), means “pressure, oppression or affliction.” Life is filled with them: disappointments, oppositions, heartaches, illnesses and misunderstandings of all kinds. As I am wont to say, the “hardships” are whatever we would change in an instant if we could, but we can’t … because they are simply, for whatever reason, not under our control.
These are the experiences through which we need to walk in order to enter God’s Kingdom. They purify our motives, remind us of our limitations, renew our sense of dependence of God and help us understand that we ourselves are not the center or the salvation of the world. It’s not about us, but always about Christ’s paschal mystery of death and Resurrection!
It is possible to choose any number of different bits of Lenten penance or mortification each year. The most effective Lenten practices, however, are those served up onto our plates by life, rather than those we may select for ourselves.
Have a piece of candy, but be kinder to the neighbor or coworker who annoys the heck out of you. Love the unlovable because they probably need it the most. Precisely embracing those realities is the entrance to God’s Kingdom.
Whatever the tough spots in our lives this Lent, they are the hardships or the “thlipses” (plural) as Paul would call them, which will slide us into the Kingdom. We need to pray in order to understand them, and the reasons why they may be so troublesome in order to perceive the deeper spiritual illnesses which afflict our spirits.
We need to embrace them. If we are sufficiently mature, we even need to see them as gifts from a God who loves us more than we could ever love ourselves. We need to say, “Thank you!” Sometimes, however, if we are honest, that’s a tough sell.
By faith we know that God called each of us into being for a unique and special purpose. It is God’s desire that we be perfected in our uniqueness and in our relationship with Christ and each other.
The thlipses of life enable that gradual perfecting to take place. Because they remain at the center of our life’s spiritual journey, these hardships remain precious, valuable and irreplaceable. We admit our sins, but somehow embrace their consequences as a means of growth.
One way of speaking about the annual Lenten experience is to remember that it is a time to “come alive in a new way.” Lent is primarily a community experience. The embrace of our hardships, whatever they may be, because in fact they usually involve other people in some manner, is also a way of purifying and perfecting the larger community within which we live, work and pray. Happy “hardship!”