The Lenten Practice of Entrusting

Q

In our church, we have long viewed Lent as a time to focus on confession of sin. While that is crucial, I have this sense that this isn’t fully adequate. How would you approach expanding our vision?

A

Let me start by affirming how crucial it is to name and confess sin and to celebrate God’s gift of forgiveness. Lent is an ideal time not only to teach about the lavish grace of God by which we receive forgiveness through Christ, but also to practice confession and assurance as a regular pattern in worship.

With that Lenten cornerstone in place, there are dozens of ways to expand our vision. That is because union with Christ is a symphonic concept or image that includes many complementary aspects of the salvation God so freely offers us in Christ. Salvation is a multifaceted, many-splendored gift.

In this brief column, I will describe just one practice to complement confession and assurance—a practice I sense is particularly urgent and spiritually crucial in a time of anxiety and discord. It’s the practice of entrusting.

The practice is on vivid display in Jesus’ last words before his death: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). This is a prayer of attachment and trust, a prayer of relinquishing and resting. The familial address “Abba” (Father) echoes the opening of the Lord’s Prayer, placing tender, relational trust at the center of our theological vision. The praying person rests in the embrace of “the everlasting arms” of God (Deuteronomy 33:27).

For centuries, Christian communities have insisted that faith is not merely intellectual assent to a set of ideas. Entrusting prayers lead us beyond mere assent and invite us to receive one of the best gifts of all: a sense of childlike repose.

This prayer doesn’t displace attention to sin. Indeed, this act of entrusting explicitly resists the sins of pride, arrogance, and self-worship. But it complements our typical way of speaking about sin in Lent, which so often draws on legal language (e.g., we are “acquitted” in Christ, who absorbs the punishment we deserve) with language that is profoundly personal and familial. Indeed, the mystery and beauty of Christian faith is not only that God offers us forgiveness, but also that God adopts us as children.

It is important to stress that praying “into your hands I commit my spirit” is a basic form of biblical prayer. Jesus did not make up those words on the cross. He recited them from Psalm 31:5. As a Jewish boy, he would have memorized those words and used them regularly—not unlike children today who are taught bedtime prayers. The apostle Stephen did the same thing, drawing on these words as he was martyred (Acts 7:59).

And it is important to stress that this is not just a prayer for hospice units and bedtime rituals. It’s a prayer for morning as well as evening, for life as well as death. Praying “into your hands I commit my spirit” is a prayer for teachers, plumbers, pastors, and CEOs. It is a prayer for children, parents, guardians, and friends. If we had to choose a single one-sentence prayer to use each and every day of our lives, this would be a fruitful choice.

Now to put this into practice!

Try starting with a treasure hunt. Where can you find practices of entrusting? Search the Bible first: Psalm 131 for sure, and the Song of Simeon. Look for examples in Christian history: prayers of the martyrs and Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1 (“I . . . belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.”) Then create a list of songs, images, and artworks that convey this practice. Try skimming an entire hymnal or the CCLI top 200 songs in a night (a splendid way to spend an evening!). If possible, make this a group project, inviting others—even your entire congregation—to be on the lookout for compelling examples of this practice of entrusting.

Then embrace this practice as a central aspect of how you introduce or frame the season of Lent. It’s important to be intentional about it early on because this vivid prayer of Jesus is not usually remembered in worship until Good Friday, when only a portion of a worshiping community is likely to be present. Here’s an example of how to introduce this early on without in any way setting aside confession and assurance as central Lenten disciplines:

This Lent, we have the opportunity to grow in two central Christian practices by learning to say to God two things that don’t come naturally to us: “I’m sorry” and “I entrust myself to you, O Lord.” The latter is a prayer that builds on our previous approaches to Lent, which focused on the life-giving practice of confession, by adding a new practice of spiritual tenderness and rest inspired by Jesus’ very last prayer before he died. This year, may Lent be for us a “both/and” season—a season of repentance and a season of repose.

In worship itself, much depends on how your worship service unfolds. If you prepare worship in a congregation with no set order of service, you have the freedom to choose a two-part discipline for each of Lent’s six Sundays—winsomely insisting, for example, that every week you will sing one song of confession of sin and one song of entrusting ourselves to God. If you do, identify them clearly as such so that worshipers will recognize the intent. Be sure to keep the focus on the spiritual value of each practice. This discipline is not an onerous burden, but an invitation to taste and see the beauty of the Lord. It is a “yoke that is easy.”

If you prepare worship in a congregation with a set order of service, there are many ways to make this double theme visible: insisting that prayers of confession and assurances of pardon feature both legal and familial images, creating a music list of two kinds of Lenten songs that can be used in worship and also shared for personal use, and looking for iconography that corresponds with each. Further, I encourage beginning the prayers of the people every week in Lent with words that echo Psalm 31:5 and the prayers of Jesus and Stephen: “Almighty and loving God, how we long to entrust ourselves to you. Help each of us by your Spirit to pray, ‘Into your hands I commit my Spirit.’”

In all contexts, be sure to look for ways to connect liturgy and life. Consider sending weekly or daily “learning to confess” and “learning to entrust” prompts for personal prayer or highlighting Bible texts that illuminate both practices.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 142 © December 2021 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.