February 22, 2010: What are you giving up for Lent?

Posted on : Feb 22nd, 2010 | By | Category: Still Speaking

God humbled you with hunger, and then fed you manna, which was unknown to you and your ancestors, to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that flows from the mouth of God. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

It is that time of the year; the “Season of Self-Denial.” For the next six weeks the chances are big that someone is going to ask you: “What are you giving up for Lent?” When I opened up my Facebook account last Thursday, the morning after Ash Wednesday, countless postings popped up proclaiming everything that’s being given up for Lent. “I’m giving up chocolate,” “I’m giving up coffee,” or my favorite one “I’m giving up Facebook.” The list of things being given up seems to be endless.

It seems to me that the season of Lent has developed into a time to give up some vice or another. It seems to me that it tends to revolve around acts of self-denial. It seems to me that Lent is all about denying ourselves something for the sake of denial.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” This question is the “bee in my bonnet.” Lent is not at all about self-denial. It’s not an exercise in self-discipline. Giving up coffee, or chocolate, or Facebook is not the purpose of Lent. To think that acts of self-denial are the purpose of Lent is a “grand exercise” in missing the point.  Lent is about emptying ourselves, opening ourselves to God’s transformative grace. Let’s be honest, giving up coffee won’t accomplish that, it’s just going to make me irritable!

But let’s first backtrack, and start at the beginning. For those of you who don’t know (especially those of us who come from the Protestant Tradition – following liturgical seasons is a new thing to us): Lent is a spiritual discipline that originated in the early church which spans 40 days from Ash Wednesday until the Saturday before Easter Sunday. The six Sundays during Lent are not counted, since they are considered “mini-Easters.” (We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday.)  Originally Lent was a time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a time of study and prayer before their baptism early in the morning on Easter Sunday. Not only the new members but all in the faith community were called upon to prepare themselves in anticipation of welcoming the newly baptized into the community of faith on Easter morning. And so the spiritual discipline of Lent developed as a time of penitential prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (charitable deeds, such as helping those in need of food and clothing – in essence, to serve) in preparation for celebrating Easter.

You may wonder: Is there any significance to the number 40? In Scripture the number 40 is used to refer to a long time. For instance, we read in Scripture that the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, before entering the Promised Land. It’s a journey that should have taken them only a few months from Egypt, but because the people rebelled against God, Scripture tells us that that particular generation would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land, only their children.  Thus they wandered around in the dessert until the first generation died out. A generation is counted as 35-40 years. And so 40 became not only an expression to refer to a life time, but in general a long time.  It is also a time of transformation: in those 40 years Israel was transformed into the people of God who learned to humbly depend on God for their lives and livelihood.

The concepts of 40, prayer, fasting, and service are interrelated. Fasting is a significant spiritual discipline and is practiced in almost every religion. In ancient Judaism people fasted for two reasons; first to express personal and communal repentance in humble supplication to God and second to prepare one’s self inwardly to receive the necessary strength and grace to empower them to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name. For example Moses, Elijah and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting to prepare themselves to become the bearers of God’s saving acts to people. We read in Matthew 4 that before Jesus started with his ministry, he went to the wilderness to fast in preparation for his work. He combined both prayer and fasting to overcome his temptations. The early church followed his example. In Acts 13 and 14 we read that the early church fasted and prayed whenever they needed to discern where God was leading them and to empower them for that ministry.*

What does all this have to do with Lent, you may wonder?  Just as Jesus prepared himself for his ministry of redemption in the wilderness, so we follow in Jesus’ example. By prayer and fasting Jesus was able to resist the lie that humans live by bread alone, realizing that it is, instead, by dependence on God that we live. We prepare ourselves in the 40 days leading up to Easter by a process of self-emptying, so that God’s grace can empower us for our ministry of service. We live in a country in which food is in abundance – the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting prepare us for the Feast of Easter, when we are raised into new life with Christ.

Then Jesus said to them, “The truth of the matter is, Moses hasn’t given you bread from heaven; yet my Abba gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Teacher,” they said, “give us this bread from now on.” Jesus explained to them, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty. (John 6:32-35)

As Protestants began to reclaim church seasons, many took on the tradition of “giving things up” for Lent – dessert, chocolate, popcorn, chewing gum, or other frivolities. What we have participated in and witnessed is the trivialization of a very profound spiritual discipline. We trivialize spiritual disciplines when we lose sight of their real purpose. Lent is not a six-week inconvenience in an otherwise abundant year, during which we somehow please God with voluntary if minor suffering. Lent is not a testing ground for the true grit of our willpower. The question we need to ask with any spiritual discipline is, What does God want to accomplish in me through this practice? For the early church, Lent was just the opposite of a dreary season of restriction and self-torture. It was understood as an opportunity to return to normal life – the life of natural communion with God (Marjorie Thompson).


*If you are interested in reading more about the Christian practice of fasting, I suggest Marjorie Thompsons’ Soul Feast, 2005.