Among the recurring stress dreams commonly reported by people, perhaps this is the most familiar: you show up at school only to realize that you’ve forgotten about a quiz or final exam.
Just reading that sparked anxiety, probably. And who can blame you? It’s a stressful scene. Any number of consequences might befall you in this scenario. A failing grade—or, indeed, maybe a failed class or even failing out of school entirely. Perhaps a lost chance for success, or a failure to live up to one’s standards, shame at your foolishness, or embarrassment in front of your peers.
What an awful feeling! If only you’d known! If only you’d remembered! If only—wait, hold it a minute. If only you’d remembered, you’d have done . . . what, exactly?
Well, you’d have probably studied. You’d have reviewed your material, refreshed your memory. You’d have all the data top of mind. You’d be ready, then; you’d have prepared.
Do you notice the root anxiety of this dream? Look deeper. See it? There it is: it’s unpreparedness.
It doesn’t matter what kind of Eagle Scout you are; preparedness is not anyone’s default state. This may be even more true for our spiritual lives than for anything else. In Jesus’ time people spent the day before a Sabbath preparing for their coming day of rest. John the Baptist came as “a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’” getting the people ready for Jesus’ ministry. Jesus premised his whole parable of the ten virgins on the need to stay watchful and prepare for his return—the implication being that, without this encouragement, his followers naturally wouldn’t.
By taking seriously our natural unreadiness, we admit that we can’t just “drop in” on something. Most of us have morning routines for just this reason. We know that rolling out of bed and careening right into the day doesn’t set us up for success. Far better, we have noticed, to first enjoy a hot shower, brew coffee, maybe scroll through the news over breakfast. Devotional times do the same, either preparing us spiritually for the day ahead, or transitioning our souls into the peace of sleep. We’re just not wired to start things without preparing.
Our need for preparation also suggests a kind of inherent scatteredness to our daily experience of life. It implies that our energies, spiritual and mental, naturally fragment in many directions. To focus them fully requires an intentional, intervening practice of some kind. Like preparing to bake a recipe, spiritual preparation involves organizing the disparate ingredients of our attention so as to unify them toward a specific end.
When we prepare, two things happen.
We understand more.
Starting at the end of chapter 8, the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus began to tell his disciples about his upcoming death, resurrection, and second coming. His purpose, in part, seemed to be preparation. Mark 9:32 says that the disciples “didn’t understand what [Jesus] was saying, . . . and they were afraid to ask him what he meant.” When Peter heard Jesus talk this way, he was so confused he took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Despite having followed him for two-to-three years, the disciples didn’t quite grasp his full purpose or the fullness of what they would be asked to do. And so, all through the second half of the Gospels, part of Jesus’ ministry to his disciples is to prepare them so that they’ll understand what’s coming.
Forty days of fasting and prayer during Lent (mirroring the forty days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness to prepare for his ministry) align our mental axes with the meaning of the original experience of Holy Week. This allows its full force to get through to us: the gut-punch tragedy of Good Friday, the silence of Saturday, and the ecstasy of Easter. This preparation ensures that, when the eyes of our heart turn to the cross, they will be wide open.
We maximize impact.
To fail to fully experience something is to forfeit the weight of impact it might have for us. As people longing for the transformation of character and heart that Jesus brings, this impact is too big a thing to lose.
Imagine two people have signed up for a month-long service trip. One spends three weeks before departure praying and fasting for the people they will serve. The other simply boards the plane and shows up. Now, both of them may have transformative experiences—but who is more likely to feel the full spiritual impact of the trip? The one who prayed and fasted, of course. And why? Because they prepared; they took Jesus’ parable of the soil seriously, tilling the ground of their heart with prayer and fasting until it was fertile for any spiritual seeds that fell on it.
The unprepared one? They lost something precious, something that, once gone, can never again return: an experience offered fully for the Lord to use. A life of unpreparedness compounds on itself. Impoverished half-experiences accumulate where full ones should be, and the result is a spiritual weakness that, in the end, breaks our hearts because of what we’ve missed out on.
Each year we have the chance to experience the gift of Lent—the gift of preparing to experience the most of God on the most powerful holidays of our faith, so that we might also prepare to enjoy the most of him forever. Let’s not miss out.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team members Matt Kirk and Laura Li-Barbour.