According to the church calendar, we are in the season of Lent. I struggle sometimes to understand the meaning of this time leading up to Easter, which somehow calls forth a more active kind of waiting than that associated with Advent. Growing up, I was unfamiliar with the practice of “giving something up” for Lent; even now, the idea seems a bit confusing. Some people choose to “give up” a bad habit, such as drinking soda. But that seems to make Lent all about them rather than about God. Others choose to “give up” something good, for example by cutting out a food group. But that, too, seems to make Lent all about them. And besides, isn’t the time for penance past, since the Reformation?
As an adult, my experience with giving things up for Lent has been sporadic and halfhearted. Occasionally, it has even been against my will, as one year when my husband declared spontaneously on the verge of Lent that as a family, we would give up chocolate for the duration. I was steamed! He still had coffee in the morning and wine at night as treats in his days; I don’t care for either of those, so I felt the absence of chocolate keenly. (Perhaps that was an indication that I should give up chocolate?)
Thinking it through, I like several things about the idea of giving something up for Lent. First, the Christian life is full of paradoxes, one of which is that true fulfillment is found in self-denial. (See for example, Matthew 16:24 and 25: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.“) Self-denial doesn’t happen easily in a culture that says we can (and should!) be, have, and do it all. Perhaps giving something up, and dealing with the related discomfort and inconvenience for a period of weeks, can be a reminder of Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice, and of his call for us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. But sometimes the practice is undermined by frequent comments about what is being “given up,” turning the experience into a pity party. After all, in Matthew 6:16-18, we are told not to let it be known when we are fasting.
Second, giving something up for Lent can be a way to break a mild addiction. This seems appropriate, since addictions indicate an unhealthy dependence on something that cannot satisfy. Only Christ can satisfy.
Third, in the Northern Hemisphere, Lent happens during late winter and early spring, when the world itself is stark and stilled. Giving something up, simplifying, seems appropriate in this context. But how do we do so in a way that will keep our gaze on Christ, rather than creating a distraction?
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, our church had a service during which we celebrated communion and many of us had ashes drawn into a cross on our foreheads. As I sat in a pew, I thought about Lent and its reminder of our guilt and shame. Strangely, my main feeling was one of relief: relief for an opportunity to stop pretending that “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay,” relief at the invitation to name and mourn the brokenness in our world and in each of us, relief that all of our darkness is not enough to make God turn away—but that instead he entered that darkness.
Perhaps Lent is not so much for “giving up” as it is an invitation to “go deep,” to make space and time to feel the weight of our need.
Author Edna Hong suggests that Lent is an opportunity to turn away from complacency and apathy. She writes, “The tides of God always move… toward an ever deeper skepticism about ourselves (that we may have all the more confidence in God), toward an ever deeper self-distrust (that we may trust in God all the more).”1 She adds, “The purpose of Lent is…to create a healthy hatred for evil, a heartfelt contrition for sin, and a passionately felt need for grace.”2
If we already know that our sins have been forgiven, does it even matter whether or not we feel the weight of those sins, and whether or not we confess them? According to the second question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, it matters immensely! “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort ? Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”
I still don’t have an answer about whether or what to give up for Lent. Maybe I wouldn’t tell you if I did. The things I would most like to give up are intangible, like my pride and selfishness. But I am thankful for a season that encourages me to look deep within, to see the darkness of my own sin, and to be amazed all over again by a love that is wide and long and high and deep—deeper than my all fears and insecurities and sin.