“What are you giving up for Lent?” When I was growing up, this was a common question in the week or so before Ash Wednesday. For the most part, my friends and I saw Lent as an exercise in willpower: we picked the thing that we thought we couldn’t live without and gave it up for more than a month (for me, this was generally chocolate). I remember that the first few days would be just fine; I might have even thought that I could go for even longer than forty days without chocolate. By Easter, however, I would be clamoring for chocolate rabbits or peanut butter cups or my absolute favorite, Cadbury Mini Eggs. Easter became less a celebration of the Resurrection and more a commemoration of the fact that I could not eat chocolate again. The sacrifice I had endured for forty days made those chocolate morsels all the sweeter.
This is certainly one way to look at our Lenten disciplines. By giving up that thing we think we cannot live without, we will hopefully come to the realization that the only “thing” we truly cannot live without is God. The problem with this approach, however, is that we either end up in the place where I always ended up on Easter (counting the minutes until I could eat chocolate again) or we see our Lenten disciplines not as an opportunity to renew our relationship with God, but as a recapitulation of our New Year’s resolutions: “During Lent, I’m going to give up chocolate, which will hopefully help me lose 10 pounds.” I’ll admit that at one point or another, I have taken both of these approaches to Lent.
I would encourage you to look at your Lenten discipline in another way. A discipline, after all, is not supposed to be an overwhelming or insurmountable obstacle. A discipline is something that we engage in on a regular basis, something that challenges us and constantly pushes us in a new direction. Athletes are disciplined about their training regiments, not because they have a static goal in mind, but so that they can challenge themselves to be the best that they can possibly be. We should take the same approach to our Lenten disciplines: we should not have a fixed goal in mind (“I’m going to make sure I say the Lord’s Prayer at least once a day”), our disciplines should allow for the possibility of spiritual growth (“I’m going to say the Lord’s Prayer every day and see whether it changes the way I experience God”). For this reason, I’d like to encourage you to think not in terms of a “Lenten discipline,” but in terms of a “Lenten routine,” something that you do every day to bring yourself closer to God. Naturally, this can include giving up those things we think we cannot live without, but we must be careful not to see our Lenten routines as ends in themselves. Our Lenten routines should not focus on what we are sacrificing during this season; our Lenten routines should focus on our spiritual growth and on increasing our awareness of God’s grace.