What is Lent supposed to teach us? What is repentance all about? Why do we spend this season in a spiritual wilderness? What would happen to us if we journeyed out into the desert all alone for forty days?
We do these things to learn that we are helpless, that we are mortal, that we cannot make it on our own.
This Sunday we will pray words as damning as any we encounter all year long: "Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves." The collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is powerful. It begins with the fullness of our failure. It announces boldly and plainly to God that we are destined to screw it all up. There is no where to hide after those words are said. There is no way to start a prayer with those words and end up anywhere other than begging for help. We cannot simultaneously acknowledge our powerlessness and then claim we have any power. We know, after hearing those words, that the conclusion of that prayer will be a supplication for God's help.
Something powerful happens when we admit that we are powerless. It's the first of the twelve steps. We have no power in ourselves. That's where recovery starts: "We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." That's where deliverance begins. That's where salvation starts.
I live in a world that hides from weakness. I live in a culture that celebrates strength. I live in a community that doesn't know how to handle failure. When confronted by a terminal illness or a monumental grief or a raging addiction or a debilitating depression, we pat people on the back and say, "Hang in there. Things will get better." We do that because it is threatening to acknowledge our own powerlessness over the circumstance. The truth is, however, that there's nothing we can do about any of it. We are all totally, absolutely, utterly powerless.
And once we say those words--to ourselves, to one another, and to God--we can finish the prayer: "Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul." We are helped. We are loved. We are saved. But all of that comes from a power greater than ourselves. And we can't get there until we admit our powerlessness.