The experience of freedom is not always one of pleasure.

As we read in Exodus, the wandering children of Israel were deeply unhappy and constantly voiced their displeasure with their lot. Today, they hold up a mirror to us.

When we don’t get what we want right away, we moan like they did. When things seem to threaten our sense of well-being, we worry, rather than pray and trust. We scream to be understood even as we refuse to understand others.

The season of Lent — the time of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter — makes us face these and other uncomfortable facts: that time and again we are ungrateful and self-concerned, and that our capacity to deceive ourselves and our failure to learn self-awareness is almost infinite.

To be truly, deeply and perfectly human, we need to be reminded that our culture’s obsession with personal pleasure isn’t a way to settle into the fullness of life that is our destiny as children of God.

In the wilderness, how might we strike the rock, as Moses did, so that streams of “living water” can cleanse, refresh and purge us, can “water us all in” to settle and make the soil fertile and good?

My guess is that this might be what Lent is for, not moping and moaning and grumbling — we are experts in those things already.

During Lent, we are challenged to see ourselves clearly and to stop colluding with the falsehoods we live with so easily. We find that even a tiny bit of self-restraint is hard, and woe betide us if we stand between another person and whatever their obsession is — food or drink, self-esteem, or whatever. I think that is why people react so viscerally when they encounter missionaries inviting us to come home to God, or to let go of lifestyles that are damaging. They know that responding will be costly.

Lent, paradoxically, is also about our human strength to see the full picture of the messes we get ourselves into. Lent’s austerity is concerned with cutting off the feeding of our ego and obsessions by various small abstinences. That is hard: a tiny grain of suffering, maybe, compared to what others must deal with, but suffering nonetheless. It’s an opportunity to ponder the mighty wonder to which our Heavenly Father invites us: to use our agency to co-create with God and his Son something wonderful, something true — to co-redeem as part of the Son’s infinite atonement, and accept the responsibility of bearing suffering maturely, gently and wisely. That might be how we settle into our own promised land.

C.S. Lewis famously said that pain is “God’s megaphone to a deaf world.” No one likes pain. Yet in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he insists that it is suffering that leads to endurance, and that pain and suffering, far from being meaningless, builds character, which is the foundation for hope.

The trouble is that suffering and pain are rarely on our wishlists. So is there a way of understanding the positive role of suffering without collapsing into spiritual masochism?

I know a wonderful Christian woman, a nun who is in her 90s. Before becoming a nun, she was a midwife on the South Coast of England in the 1950s. Looking back to those days, she is grateful for that time of bringing lives into their mortal journey, but sometimes she wonders what she has done since those wonderful days. She is comfortable and well cared-for, but aware of her diminishing strength. I want to tell her that she is very much a spiritual midwife to me, and that I always come away from our regular meetings infinitely refreshed and much more aware of the spiritual landscape I must journey through.

My friend has come to see that her moments of doubt and depression — which she sometimes feels are a gift from our Heavenly Father — are moments that establish spiritual solidarity with our brothers and sisters, and she is grateful for this. The gift of intelligent empathy and solidarity is a work of the Holy Spirit, whereby we can stand in the pain and fear of others.

This gift of vivid awareness is, I think, what Lent is really about. We travel without anesthetics and see and know pain and suffering, in order to be struck like rocks in the wilderness to produce flowing, living water for each other.

A waterless wilderness is a fearsome state. In Exodus, Moses, in exasperation, strikes the rock and renewing water flows. I think of the wonder of the Bridal Veil Falls on the Wasatch Front, and how such a sight might have inspired the Latter-day Saints of generations past in their Deseret Zion.

That, too, is what Lent is about. Facing down the smug, self-serving rubbish which puts us at the center of our universe, and instead striking the life-giving rock, and finding the Living Water, the Bread of Heaven, Jesus Christ. He proclaims to all of us: “I long for your company, and I will spend myself completely for you to grow and to change.”

Amen to such a Lenten fast!

Andrew Teal is fellow and chaplain of Pembroke College in the University of Oxford in England where he also teaches theology. He is a regular attender at the Oxford 1 Ward and loves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He will be giving the commencement address at BYU Provo in April of this year, when he will also be receiving an honorary doctorate of education and doctorate in Christian service.