What are you giving up for Lent? Are you sure that’s a good idea?
Giving up things for Lent is a long-standing tradition in the Western Church. Doing so is generally understood to help us prepare for observing and celebrating Easter through experience some kind of suffering through deprivation. While there is nothing wrong with giving up things for Lent and in some ways it can be a valuable spiritual discipline, for many people the practice has devolved into a work of personal suffering through which they expect to better understand the sufferings of Christ.
How silly of us to think that denying ourselves chocolate for forty days or going without our morning boost of caffeine for a season even begins to approach the least of Jesus’ sufferings for us. We’ve moved far away from the purpose and substance of Lent by the insignificant things we’re willing to give up.
While no one is certain about how the practice of giving up things for Lent began or what the motives were of those who first observed Lent in this way, we can certainly see how giving up things for Lent has come to be practiced in our culture.
Far from being a time of solemn reflection and repentance, the beginning of Lent has turned into another excuse for people to engage in excess. Now, without the disciplines of fasting, self-denial, and prayer that followed, people revel in consuming all the things that were once prohibited during Lent — and much, much more. Mardi Gras (and its various regional adaptations) has become a celebrated cultural event that shows more of what the American character has become than our half-hearted observances of Lent.
By giving up things for Lent in the ways that we do, we’ve made this holy season into one more instance of our self-absorption. Like the New Year’s Resolutions that we made just a few weeks ago, our commitment to observing Lent sacrificially is momentary and fleeting. We have a sense of what is good for us and what we must do in order to improve ourselves or our circumstances, but we lack the resolve to see our way through the self-denial that it takes to make the needed change an effective part of our lives. What we give up for Lent is often as petty and insignificant as what we resolve for New Year’s — and ends up just as broken and meaningless.
Isn’t it time for us to put an end to our empty observances of Lent? Are we ready for a serious go at journeying through Lent in a way that brings us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christ’s atoning work? If so, perhaps we should stop giving up things for Lent and use this sacred time to take up things instead.
The things that we should aim to take up during Lent are those things that we’ve let fall by the wayside as we’ve lived our lives at the breakneck speed of our culture. It might include taking up a daily devotion or taking up the practice of meditative prayer. If we’ve been away from the gathering of God’s people in worship, we could take up participating in the Divine Service on Sundays as well as the mid-week Lenten services.
What a difference Lent could be for us and make in us if we would take up reading God’s Word daily, intentionally speaking the Gospel to one person a week, showing the love of Christ to the poor and needy through acts of mercy, or listening to recorded sermons or Bible studies.
Whatever we might take up for Lent, we should remember that, above all, taking up things for Lent in a meaningful way inevitably results in hearing the clear call of Jesus to take up our crosses daily. Taking up our crosses involves looking beyond our self-interests, desires, and pious actions (including giving up things for Lent) and finding joy, peace, security, and purpose — those things that are so glaringly absent in our culture — in the realization of what Jesus gave up and took up for us.
Take up something edifying for Lent and discover joy that giving up earthly things for a few weeks can never approach.
Questions to consider:
- What might I take up for Lent that would help me grow in faith and love?
- How can either taking up something for Lent or giving up something for Lent open doors for me to share God’s Word with people in my life? How might it get in the way of it?
- In what ways can I use the season of Lent to be a witness of Christ to people who are caught up in the excesses of our culture?