Swallowing a Bitter Pill: A Lenten Journey


Post Author: Jen Herrmann


Bitter Pills of Lent

Bitter Pills of Lent

“I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”

It is a common joke around this time of year when worship leaders start planning for the Lenten season. I know I’ve said it before — even meant it. Lent can be a big, busy, bitter pill to swallow.

Ash Wednesday is one half of the encapsulation of Lent. It begins the 40 days when we wander through our own wilderness before we turn our focus onto the actions of Jesus in Holy Week. We start with the confession: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The message is easy: you have an expiration date. You are inhabiting a body of dust and ash that will, one day, fail you. These words are meant to stir our hearts and allow us to deepen our spiritual life during the Lenten journey. Two people I love, one a long-standing friend named Martin and the other, a mentor for many of us through his writing, helped me confront my own mortality on Ash Wednesday about 10 years ago.

At that time, I had been reading the words of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, writing words to himself that he needed to hear, said, “You so much want to heal yourself, fight your temptations, and stay in control.  But you cannot do it yourself. …acknowledge your powerlessness.” Not only did Nouwen need to hear this, but I did as well. I wasn’t just pessimistic and melancholy. I found myself unable to concentrate and in a miserable mood all the time. I realized things had to change when I misplaced a paycheck and wore two different color shoes to work. (And, it wasn’t a navy and black shoe — it was a black and a red shoe!) Like Nouwen, I wanted to believe that I was in control and the answer to my problems. But I found myself unable to find motivation to do anything. I didn’t want to admit my powerlessness.

In this state of mind, I found myself crying to my friend Martin over the phone. He knew my struggle and encouraged me to call the doctor. Through my tears, Martin pointed out: “Jen, this is a grace moment.” That year my Ash Wednesday confession was to see the truth in my mortality, to recognize the spiral downward that was far from normal, and to seek help for depression.

I went to my doctor, and on Ash Wednesday my prescription for antidepressants was filled. It is amazing how one pill can force you to look at yourself and life differently. Sounds a bit crazy, but it is true. I didn’t want to go to the doctor; I didn’t want to admit that my life was being affected by being depressed. All of this was a desire to avoid admitting that I was mortal. I had certainly avoided admitting my need for help. But, with a sip of water and a small green pill, I stared down the fact that I was human, broken, and in need of help. It was thanks to those two voices in my life: Nouwen showed me courage to love myself enough to tell the truth, and my friend Martin gave me the final push to face reality because of God’s grace.

Just as Lent begins with our confession, the Lenten journey is encapsulated on the other side by Maundy Thursday and the powerful words of absolution. “By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”

By no means is depression sinful! No illness ever is. But for me, depression was part of the brokenness of the world within me. I desperately needed to hear that God overcomes brokenness. My sinfulness was my pride in trying to say I was in control; it wasn’t the disease. There is nothing more powerful than the voice of someone saying “you are forgiven” to make you ready to face Easter’s joy and to give you hope after your confession. Those first 40 days weren’t the end of my struggle with depression. They were, though, the beginning of a longer journey of healing, a journey that I found the courage to take 10 years ago with a confession, a pill, a sip of water, and the promise that God is greater than myself.

So, no, I won’t be giving up Lent for Lent. Each year it is another pill to swallow that allows me to deepen my mortal human experience of life. It prepares my heart for Easter, God’s greatest gift of grace.


Jen Herrmann is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Currently she’s serving as an interim pastor and is searching for a new settled call.   She lives in Ohio with the two that she loves the most: her son Malachi and her great dane, Nella.


Image by: Sparky
Used with permission
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