Here is another take on Lenten discipline. See what you think…
I have read a few articles that make the case that ‘giving up something’ for Lent somehow misses the point. It seems rather trendy to point out that Jesus has nothing against chocolate, or coffee, or beer, and how does doing without one of these bring one closer to living a Godly life anyway? It’s rather convincing, and half the time, I’m sold. But all of the articles on fasting and giving up coffee were a bit disappointing to me. So I decided to write my own. This is my argument for giving stuff up for Lent.
Since I was old enough, I’ve always given up something for lent. And like many others, I have been able to give up increasingly more difficult things…and yes, I agree there is a point where it becomes giving up something for it’s own sake. But it can be a positive thing and in fact, it can be transformative. But maybe not in the ways you are thinking. I will speak to two forms of giving things up –
- fasting, that is, deliberately choosing to give up a meal or more, and
- giving up particular items that you really like.
Solidarity with the 99%
It’s probably not 99%, of the world population, but a large percentage of people in this world experience hunger as a regular part of life. From those whose circumstances cause a mild malnourishment, like only having a couple of small meals a day to those who go days at a time without meals. Not because they choose to fast, but because they have no food. For us whose cabinets and refrigerators are fairly well stocked, this is hard to comprehend, and even harder to empathize with. A fast every now and then can cure that. It doesn’t take much, simply skipping a meal or eating a very modest meal one day can be enough. The point is to feel hunger – and realize that it is hard to deal with. In fact, it’s very hard to do anything else while you’re hungry…you can even get irrational. And when you get that sense of hunger, say a prayer, think about Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, think about countless children around the world right now who are just as hungry. It is both humbling and motivating. The next step is to feel that overwhelming sense of gratitude that you do have food, and that you have the ability to share that food with others who are hungry right in Maryville.
What is REALLY important? or Thou shalt not make gods of sugar…
The other form of what I’m calling a ‘traditional’ Lent, is giving up something – chocolate, coffee, whatever your pleasure. I have done these ‘fasts’ before and learned some important lessons. Several Lents, I have given up sweets. For me that means cookies, candies, cake, etc. I have a sweet tooth, as they say, and so this is difficult. The argument I have heard is that giving up something like this helps make space in your life for God. In my experience, it doesn’t work that way. It just makes me dwell on sweets. I crave them. But the lesson? My head learned that my body is a little out of whack. Are sweets that important? Am I dominated by the need for a cookie after dinner? It sounds silly, but what if I dwelled on Jesus with that same fervor? What if relationship with God was what I craved? Can I turn the tables and give God the same energy and sense of urgency that I give something as unimportant as sweets? I guess it’s something of a wake-up call. What are the things I really ‘worship’? What are my idols? Now I don’t equate a brownie with a golden calf, but all the same, it makes me think. And that is why I think it’s okay to ‘give up something’ for Lent. It can help recalibrate what’s important to you. It strips away some routine and helps you see yourself better. It definitely strengthens your self-discipline. And that is what has made this a useful Lenten practice for me.
For the perfectionist in all of us…
The last thing I’d like to address is the “what if I fail?” trap. I know that it is easy to start out Lent strong in self denial, and a week later, its one cookie a week, then one-a-day, then you give up altogether in failure. To me this sounds like life. We always strive to be better, and we don’t always live up to our ideals. But to give up is not fruitful. Try and try again. This is a discipline and it takes practice. Set your goals realistically. Aim low. Don’t be surprised if it’s hard. That’s the point. And like anything else you struggle with, you will get out of it what you put into it. Try, fail, and try again. I like to think God understands that.