There's something liturgically appropriate about the alignment of Lent and tax season. Both are solemn occasions for discipline and self-reflection, and both anticipate the promise of new life—well, at least for those expecting a refund. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that many in our congregations will likely spend as much time on the TurboTax website as they do in church during Holy Week.
Like many others, I depend on TurboTax’s software to unravel the increasingly convoluted process of filing my family's tax return. I’ve combed through the IRS instruction booklet and worked its schedules enough times to appreciate the way TurboTax reduces this cumbersome annual ritual to a series of intuitive questions and colorful animations. But according to a recent feature in The Atlantic, most of those animations—including the “progress bars” that indicate computing time—are bogus. Nothing’s happening while they run, even though they suggest that the software is diligently crunching numbers in the background. It’s a trick, one that software developers call “benevolent deception.” But don’t worry; it isn’t as evil as it sounds.
Programmers insert these animations not to waste our time or to dupe us into believing the software is doing something it's not, but to “humanize” the automation so that we’ll trust the results. We’re skeptical of things that seem too easy, even for a computer, and so they let us believe that the program is working “harder” on our behalf. Technically, these frivolous delays introduce an unnecessary inconvenience, but developers find that we’re more satisfied with the experience because it reminds us of the difficulty we’d face trying to reach the same figures on our own.
There's something liturgically appropriate about the alignment of Lent and tax season.
Maybe there’s a Lenten message in that for us. After all, these 40 days of penitence, with their fasting and prayer, can seem utterly frivolous, too. Jesus dismissed those who challenged his disciples for feasting while others piously fasted, saying, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” And since the risen Christ now dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, there’s no reason to sorrowfully fast as though he’s still dead in the tomb—right?
Strictly speaking, we don’t need the solemnity of Lent to appreciate the joy of Easter. Yet there’s wisdom in pausing before the biggest feast day of the church year to meditate on the sorrow of Calvary. The salvation we proclaim at Easter is truly inscrutable to the world. No other religious worldview teaches that hope is to be found not in the good works we’re capable of doing, but solely in the finished work of another on our behalf. When people hear that salvation is a gift rather than a reward, they’re tempted to discount it as easy or cheap. Lent reminds us of the enormous ransom our Savior paid to purchase our freedom. It does so not to burden us with guilt or to demand that we pay it back, but to deepen our assurance of its eternal sufficiency and to gladden our response to Jesus’ call to take up our own cross and follow him.
Rightly observed, these 40 days function much like the artificial progress bars in TurboTax: they “humanize” Jesus’ unfathomable obedience so that we can more genuinely appreciate the miracle of his empty tomb. But the gospel of our risen Lord is no benevolent deception. The real lie is the one proffered by the world—that if we study the instruction booklet closely enough, download all the right forms, and triple-check our calculations, we can work out our salvation on our own. Lent reminds us that the blood of the Lamb has already taken care of the hard work once and for all. It wasn’t easy, and it came at a terrible price. But unlike TurboTax, it’s free.