Closely associated with the season of Lent is some kind of fast. This is a spiritual discipline that helps us mature in our ability to “deny ourselves” as we take up our cross to follow Jesus. Fasting is at the heart of Lent (look here if you need a refresher on what Lent is and how Christians can grow as they celebrate it).
People choose many different things as their Lenten fast, and the choosing is important. The idea is to choose something that is good in our life that we treasure personally, something that gives us rest, nourishment, restoration, or peace. It should also be something that is a part of our regular rhythm of life. The key is that it is a real and personal good to us; we don’t give up a sin and call it Lent; nor is this a time for trying out a fad diet for the purpose of losing weight or getting healthy—these are worthy goals mind you, but this is not the purpose of Lent.
Why give up something good?
There are a couple of reasons for this:
- Because giving up something good makes room for something greater. When we give up something that gives us comfort, we are forced into the position of looking elsewhere. A great temptation during Lent is to replace whatever we are fasting from with something else that is equivalent, like giving up our endless social media scrolling to replace it with Netflix binges. Rather, Lent is the practice of looking up, reaching out our hand in our weakness and coming to a renewed understanding that Jesus alone is enough for our comfort, our peace, our very life. Let the ongoing desire for what you’ve given up become an ever-present reminder to look up to Jesus instead.
- Because giving up something good makes us weak. This is intentional! The Holy Spirit led Jesus into his battle with Satan when Jesus was tired, hungry, and weak. When we give up portions of food or sleep or some other comfort, we get grumpy! Our head hurts sometimes, we get cold or a little shaky. How is this a good thing? Because it reveals the true state of our character. Anybody can love when they are warm, well-fed, and rested. But catch the nicest person you know after an 18-hour transatlantic flight with a belly full of airline food and ask them if you can borrow twenty bucks, see what happens. Part of the journey of Lent is to recognize the poverty of our character and to expose the deeper roots of sin in our lives. Lent helps us come to terms with the reality that when we are at our weakest, we can do bad things. This isn’t masochism or negativity—it’s discovering the truth about ourselves as it is gently revealed to us by Jesus: that sin is just below the surface of our comfortable lives, and that we desperately need a Savior who can walk with us and show us the way to transformation.
- Because giving up something good feels a little like dying. Along the Lenten journey with Christ toward the cross, we are put in touch with the sufferings and deprivations that Jesus undertook for us. In some small way, by choosing to die to something we cherish, we grow in our capacity to die to other temptations and to other good things that can get in the way of saying YES to Christ. In this way, Lent is revealed to be a kind of spiritual discipline, a training exercise in which we overtax our spiritual muscles in an effort to gain more strength for our lifelong journey with Christ. Knowing that the journey is only for a short season makes it easier.
Some ideas of what to give up for Lent
- Coffee, tea, or other “comfort” beverages.
- Social media feeds: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, even blog feeds. Yes, this will make you feel like you are out of touch. But perhaps you might grow in intimacy toward God during the season?
- All media: no TV, movies, Netflix, or video games.
- Rich foods: sweets, desserts, fast food or fried foods.
- Alcoholic beverages.
- Reading books (or buying books!)
- Wearing jewelry or makeup.
- Listening to music.
- News feeds.
- Unnecessary shopping (buy groceries and supplies only, no cruising department store aisles, the mall, or Amazon)
- Solid food on Fridays during Lent. Drink water and maybe some juice, but otherwise avoid food from sun-up to sundown during the season of Lent.
- Eating food you don’t prepare yourself: no restaurants or pre-packaged foods.
- Sleeping in a bed: sleep on the floor instead.
A couple of travel tips for the journey
- Lent is for ordinary Christians. Super-Christians don’t need Lent; they’re already perfect. Lent is for us imperfect, broken, temptation-ridden, sinful people. Lent is just as much for new Christians as it is for someone who has followed Jesus her whole life. It may even be a journey worth undertaking if you are wanting to get to know Jesus better; grab a Christian friend who knows the way and see where it might take you. There may be some very good reasons not to undertake the journey of Lent, but not being spiritual enough or strong enough isn’t one of them. Lent is supposed to be hard. This brings us to our next point:
- Never forget the grace of God. It’s very easy to get off track with Lent. When people fast for the first time, they are a little blown away by how cranky and short they get with people, how quickly sinful thoughts and temptations begin rising to the surface, how difficult it can be to keep up the fast through the season. If you’re doing this right, you are going to have the wind knocked out of you. That’s exactly the point! Don’t give up; instead, use this beautiful occasion to fall on your knees before God. Remember, all we are doing is surfacing the person that is really there underneath it all; ignoring that reality and refusing to do Lent for fear of coming face to face with it is really just hiding from the truth. God loves us, even that hidden person we might fear to face. He knows what is going to come to the surface, and he wants to deal with each broken, sinful part of us. Experiencing the grace of God up close and personal like this is powerful.
- Lent is a spiritual discipline that requires the will. I’ve written elsewhere on willpower and the spiritual disciplines, a lot of which applies here: ask God for help, get plenty of rest, enlist the aid of your community.
- No whining. Lent is serious but not solemn. Once we realize that we are in fact actually sinners, and then we fall on the grace of God who forgives and changes us, we breathe more freely. Some people want to make Lent into a big, somber, lumbering darkness. Most of that is spiritual pride: “look at me! Look how good I am at looking like I’m dying to myself!” That’s an exercise in missing the point. When we undertake to follow Jesus toward the cross, we are seeking to open our eyes, not to darken our hearts. Remember that Jesus was just as aware of his journey toward the cross when he was partying at the wedding in Cana as he was sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Look forward to a celebration. Lent is a fixed period, forty-ish days long. During this time, we fast six days of every week. But remember that every Sunday in Lent is like a reprieve from death: a glimpse of the celebration we look forward to on Easter. Beware the temptation to overdo things on Sundays; just go about your normal day and partake of whatever it is you are fasting from, taking joy in the new life that Jesus brings. And plan a big celebration for Easter!
Anticipate Easter’s new life!
This is the best part of Lent, and the heart of its original intention: the heights of joy in Christ’s resurrection are more easily seen against the dim background of the Lenten journey. After you have done battle with sin, been battered and bruised like Jesus on his way to the cross, when you’ve died to something in the hopes of gaining that glorious good life that Jesus offers, that new life comes rushing in like cool, fresh, living water.
May God transform you as you undertake your Lenten journey.