Stump the Pastor: Why Do We Give Things Up for Lent
Recently I was asked about the custom of giving things up for lent. Giving things up for Lent is rooted in Jesus’ words, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) The idea behind giving up something for Lent is to challenge ourselves to think about and to relate to the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.
A few years back, when I was a new convert to Christianity, I thought of “giving up something for Lent” as silly and superficial. My giving up Hershey kisses for forty days leading to Easter did not seem proportionate to Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity on the Cross. Just because Jesus’ struggle with the Devil in the desert did not seem on par to my fighting off cravings for Wawa coffee or Red Robin burgers. Besides I knew that if I gave up chocolate for Lent, I would end up consuming my share of it on Easter Day in the form of several large hollow bunnies and then go to Red Robin and order one of everything on the menu to satisfy my pent-up cravings. I did not see the point…
All that changed two years ago. Growing up in the Old Country I was raised knowing how to deal with shortages of everything from basic necessities like food and water to luxury items like a spare sweater. To this day I cannot bring myself to leave food on the plate no matter how full I feel or how much I dislike it. I cannot go by the men’s department without buying something from the 80% off rack.
That is why two years ago for Lent I challenged myself to stop buying anything for myself except the basic necessities. In case I needed something, I made a rule that I would not pick anything up in the store without thinking and waiting for at least 24 hours. While it was trivial, I found it difficult. That practice required planning and discipline. If I liked a shirt or a pair of slacks in Kohl’s I had to wait till the next day, find the time to drive to the store and hope that the items were still 80% off and available. If I wanted a blizzard from DQ or a cup of specialty coffee from Wawa, I had to plan my schedule the next day to satisfy my cravings. By the way, I also did not allow myself any substitutions (no trips to the Freeze for ice cream or Royal Farms for their specialty coffees instead).
After that Lenten season I discovered that this practice changed me. It taught me to think about what brings me joy and what I consider to be satisfactory. It challenged me to think about the reasons behind my purchasing things that I do not need (like another shirt or a pair of slacks) or that are not good for me (like sweet treats full of high fructose corn syrup).
That exercise helped me to get in touch with Jesus’ humanness and my own humanity. That exercise helped me to recognize my own brokenness and my need for God’s Grace. That exercise helped me to acknowledge all the ways that I have turned away from God and to make a conscientious effort of focusing my mind and soul on God’s presence in the world around me. The lessons that I learned during that Lent two years ago are still with me.
In conclusion I want to add that in recent years many Christians began taking on extra practices for Lent instead of giving something up. Whether you like to give something up or do something extra, the goal is the same: to have this process help you see God more clearly, love God more dearly and follow God more nearly.