Culture At Large

My spiritual discipline of not giving up something for Lent

Nathan Bierma

A couple years ago I explained why I don't join in the practice of giving up something for Lent. Basically, I find the most common sacrifices (chocolate, TV) relatively trivial. Also, I'm not in favor of a monotonously gloomy Lent followed by an abbreviated bunny-and-ham-filled Easter (which is supposed to be a whole 40 days of its own, remember). And for me at least, the habit could actually distract me from meditating on the meaning of Lent more than it focuses me on it. (I'm not anti-monastic or anti-Catholic; I actually defend Protestant use of ashes on Ash Wednesday and even making the sign of the cross.)

I was chastened after that post by a few really insightful comments. A few of my favorites:

  • Lent is not just about giving up something for 40 days and being relieved about it being over when it's over. It's about knowing what it's like to sacrifice something, and to learn something from your experience.
  • Your trouble lies in the fact that fasting, in the Protestant practice, is largely an individualistic attempt, rather than the [collective] obedience it was meant to be, and still is, among traditional churches today.
  • Lent is a season of penance set aside to train our wills to be able to better follow Christ the rest of the year.
  • Fasting is a spiritual discipline that too often is relegated by the modern church because of its difficulty and unpleasantness and I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice to write it off or giving ourselves easy outs.
  • Lent is not a time of self-flagellation but of penance so the Joy of the Lord can be experienced with ever greater exuberance.
  • Your post should be called Five Reasons Not To Give Up Something for Lent UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT LENT IS REALLY ABOUT.

And indeed, when I reflect on not giving up something for Lent, I can see the downside of my decision. I went on living life as normally as any other time of year. Some days I forgot it was Lent. The word "sacrifice" seemed more of a metaphor than a spiritual reality.

On the other hand, I still worry that giving up something, at least one of the usual suspects, would still feel gimmicky and even self-aggrandizing, a lame and self-centered attempt to "feel more spiritual." I'd also want to be more clear on the outcome and end of a Lenten experiment - not just a relieved re-indulgence of whatever vice I'd put on pause.

Lest I still come across as anti-Catholic, let me quote a friend and wise spiritual guide who happens to be a nun. In a profound and challenging essay on the Paschal Mystery, Joyce Ann Zimmerman states how the essence of worship, spiritual formation and Christian discipleship is dying and rising with Christ:

"The Paschal Mystery - suffering and joy, dying and rising - is not a matter of "paying our dues" (suffering and dying) so that we might be "rewarded" (share in the blessedness of divine life). What Jesus taught us is that as his disciples we must take up our own cross and lose our own lives for the sake of others (see Matt 16:24). In this very self-giving we conform ourselves more perfectly to Christ in whom we were baptized; in this very self-giving God raises us to new life. Thus, in the very dying is the rising. In the very dying do we affirm our baptismal commitment; in the rising we enjoy the blessings of faithful followers of Jesus the Christ."

Whatever we do - during Lent or after Lent, individually or in community, trivial or ambitious - that's the purpose it must serve: emptying ourselves to make room for Christ's fullness.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, Worship