Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that observed Lent. In fact, generally speaking, the only way I was aware of Easter’s approach was when the Peeps and chocolate bunnies started showing up in stores. I had Catholic friends who observed Lent, usually by fasting from a favorite food, but as an evangelical, I thought that sounded like “works,” so it didn’t seem to apply to me.
Years later, I realized that I had thrown out the baby with the bathwater. The intent of Lent is not “works,” but rather, to invite believers to a time of examination and repentance that prepares us for receive the forgiveness of Good Friday and the hope of Resurrection Sunday. And that kind of Lenten observance is something I very much want and need!
Centuries ago, Ignatius of Loyola taught a method for engaging in this kind of humble reflection. He called it the “prayer of examen.” There are different ways to do an “examen,” but I’ll suggest one, the examen of conscience, that is especially good for the Lenten season.
Basically, the idea is simply to invite the Holy Spirit to show you anything in your life that is out of line with God’s purposes for you. That’s what sin is, after all—it’s the things we think, say, or do (or fail to think, say, or do) that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life God intends for us and those we live among. So we ask the Holy Spirit to uncover those things for us so that we can ask forgiveness for them and, with His help, turn from them.
It’s important not try to do an examen on your own. By ourselves, most of us will either justify things that need to be repented of, or else beat ourselves up. Neither is God’s approach. When the Holy Spirit points out sin, He doesn’t blame or condemn—He offers help and hope. He reveals areas of darkness so that we can come into God’s light and be freed, healed, and restored.
You can pray in your own words, or if you like, Psalm 139:23-24 makes a great ready-made prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
After you invite the Holy Spirit to examine your heart and mind, listen in silence for a few minutes. Jot down whatever impressions come to mind. Then talk to God about them. Confess whatever He has shown you, ask Him to forgive you, see if He wants you to make things right in any particular way, and ask for His help to turn from what He has shown you.
Can you see how engaging in a prayer practice like this over the days between now and Easter can make you more grateful for Jesus’ death and more hopeful and joyful because of His resurrection?