The Lent Series: Why Do People Give Stuff Up For Lent? What’s The Point, Anyway?

What is the point of giving things up for Lent? I mean, really…Its 40 days (well, 46 including Sundays) of misery while going coming down from a temporary sugar high or suffering from chronic (but yet obligatory) college caffeine withdrawal. Realistically, it is going to be 40+/- days of craving and desiring the things we have given up, and when we slip up, feeling guilty and repenting countless times for our short comings. But is this actually what Lent is supposed to be like? Are we supposed to suffer through our desires and temptations constantly, or is removing something from our existence for nearly 7 weeks supposed to serve another purpose entirely?

This past week marked the beginning of the 2011 Lent Season for myself and the hundred or so other churchgoers at Smith, plus the billions of Christians worldwide. Smith College surprised me certainly by holding an ecumenical service to mark the start of the holiday season. I was asked to read the Gospel reading, and minus my monumentally massive screw up (and the pathetic apology I offered to the entire congregation after…), I felt as though the beginning of a long 40 days had started with a BANG! Or perhaps, they just started properly, with the sense of purpose. I left the stereotypically New England chapel – properly named Helen Hills Hills after an Alumna who prior to marriage was Helen Hills, but promptly married a Mr. Hills and thereby became known as Mrs. Helen Hills Hills. But I digress. Helen Hills Hills is both a typical New England chapel on the outside, and also the inside as well, with the whitewashed wooden pews and unsurprisingly traditional pipe organ, pulpit and lectern. A sermon was given from the pulpit about embracing the meaning behind Lent, understanding that throughout the next 40 days, we remember the sacrifice and suffering Jesus underwent on our behalf. When the sermonizing was over, people were invited up to the table to receive their ashes from the college dean of Religious Life and the visiting speaker, who was the president of the School for Social Work.

To answer the question I asked myself in my last blog post (will I receive ashes?), no, I didn’t stand up and get in line to have my forehead marked with the sign of the cross in ashes. Why, you may ask? Why not just do it because everyone else was? But that is precisely the answer; I was the only person in the entire chapel who didn’t leave with an ashy forehead, but in my opinion, I just wasn’t ready to partake in that rite. For me, religious belief, or rather religiosity is entirely personal, a grouping of personal selections that when brought together make up my faith/belief system. Ahhh, but what does this have to do with the ashes, you might then ask? Ashes were never done in my church, and thus they were never a part of my religious upbringing. When my faith developed further as a high schooler, I celebrated the coming of Lent with an awesome pancake supper, and then just moved along, slogging toward Easter Sunday. So by not taking ashes this past week, I wasn’t purposefully trying to insult all those who themselves selected to.

As I was leaving, a discussion began among the friends I was sitting with about what we were all giving up for lent. One said that she had already begun her efforts to give up Pepsi for the 40 days, while another was giving up sweets. Then, the pointed question turned toward me: “So, what are youuu giving up for Lent, Liz?” That’s a perfectly honest and relevant question, but at the same time, it inspires so much frustration and just plain anger in me. Why is there so much emphasis placed on giving something up for Lent in the first place? Is it a sign of personal devotion or a way for us as college students to brag to our friends that we can’t go to Herrells because we gave up ice cream in the name of Jesus? Ultimately, are we giving things up for Lent because we want to show our devotion to God or just because we like the attention it gets us? Or rather, is it just something that is socially expected of us in 21st century American Christianity?

As I mentioned before, Lent is a way to engage more fully with God, eliminating things that are out of conformity with Him and strengthening the bond between ourselves and God/Jesus. Perhaps this is why Lent and Easter take place in the Spring? Because Lent is a time of spiritual growth and rebirth, much like during the spring, the grass becomes green again, and the flowers and trees grow. During this time, we are expected to examine our faith and how we practice our beliefs, making additions and subtractions based on what we feel either adds to or distracts from a devotion to God.

But if it is a season of growing and developing, why then are we so focused on giving things up for Lent? I am going to answer this question with a story. This summer, as you all know by now, I lived in Oakland and worked both there and in San Francisco. My denomination just acquired a church in San Francisco called the City Church – San Francisco. (Commence the screams and giddiness over the potential to head back out there permanently…OMG!!!) Fortunately for me, their sermons are uploaded into iTunes, so even though I am nearly 3500 miles away and can’t physically attend their services, I can still listen and learn from their weekly messages. I was listening to a sermon of theirs from the Lent season back in 2006, where the minister – I think it was Mike – talked about the meaning of Lent. When I heard this particular sermon, it was as if a lightbulb turned on in my head…WOAH! This is what I needed to hear like 4 years ago! He used Isaiah 58 to discuss exactly what Lent should be all about:

[Background info: God is yelling at the Israelites for their interpretation of what true fasting is; He is pissed because the Israelites have been pretending to fast, but haven’t fully committed to following the rules of a true fast.]

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I….if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58:6-11

The point of using this scripture is that God is telling the Israelites that if they follow Him with their whole hearts, He will always be the spring that never fails, no matter how grand the problem. With this in mind, Isaiah 58 describes the relationship with God that we are supposed to have, but it is difficult to consistently engage with because of all the distractions in life (Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, movies, TV shows, etc…). But Lent is the unique, annual opportunity to bond with Jesus without the distractions of all those wonderful, but harmful modes.

As I said in a previous post, Lent is the remembrance of Jesus’ 40 day fast in the desert while being tempted by the devil. Jesus cut out food altogether during those 40 days; obviously, we as human beings can’t live up to the standards that Jesus set in the Bible. However, we can cut out certain things to make room in our lives to think about where we are going in our journey with God. Are we really engaging with God on a daily basis, or are we only praying to God when we need something? Or only on Sundays? Holidays? By giving up something that means a lot to us in our every day lives, we are able to hone in on our relationship with God, rather than our consumption of a certain product. For example, I have decided to give up candy, because I eat a lot of it and it is something that I enjoy very much. Jesus most certainly enjoyed food, and by giving it up for 40 days, he was able to focus on things that were far more important – like his faith and devotion to his father, God in Heaven. Because Jesus could give something so important up for such a long period of time, I most certainly can give up something that is a part of my life too – Candy.

So what about giving things up? Should we do that because we have to or because we want to? Most people give up things because it is what they have always done, from their childhood; ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with that. However, the whole point of giving something up for Lent is to do it of your free will. It is an act to de-clutter our lives to make more room for God, rather than to give something up because it is what we should do or rather, what we have always done. That is all well and good. But what you select to give up shouldn’t be easy – it should be something that is a part of your everyday life and will be challenging to live without. This is to remember that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t easy – it was perhaps the most challenging thing anyone could do; but he still sacrificed himself for us, and what we choose to sacrifice should have a similar effect in our lives. Each day that we are tempted by the thing that we have removed, we should remember how Jesus was tempted, and that regardless of how hard he was tempted, Jesus stayed strong for us, for our sake alone. But our sacrifice shouldn’t by any means be approached from a legalistic perspective. We shouldn’t ultimately feel forced to give things up because it is what we should do during this time of year. Rather, it should be something that we want to do to grow closer to God.

Mike concluded his sermon on the purpose of Lent with the following scenario:

“If we cannot control our appetites, then we will never be able to make a change in our lives – to cut back or make room for new relationships and beliefs.” Ultimately, Lent isn’t supposed to be 40 days of suffering because we have cut out something that we are dependent upon. Rather, it should allow us to ask the following questions:

“Am I glorifying God through my work and actions? Am I showing God’s love and grace through my interactions with my friends, family and loved ones?”

Why don’t we make Lent the time when we contemplate the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf? Lets make the next 40 days count by focusing on solely on God and a more serious examination of how we interact with our environment and people.

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One thought on “The Lent Series: Why Do People Give Stuff Up For Lent? What’s The Point, Anyway?”

  1. Great post! I think it sounds more like a sermon, and I do hope that after you’ve been a minister for fifteen years, you will publish a book of your sermons. They are just awesome! You made me think about the spirituality of the upcoming holiday of Passover and how I can make it about remembering the Exodus from Egypt and not focus on how hard it is like I’ve done every year. Thanks 🙂

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