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9 March 2011
Giving something up for Lent as cultural artifact

Jesus may have specifically instructed his followers not to show any sign they were fasting, but that was before Twitter. In any case, whether they tweet about it or not, many Christians will observe Lent by abstaining from something that is otherwise good and to be celebrated—chocolate, meat, wine, or keeping one’s rightful place in a queue.

It sounds very simple, yet for many of us it proves to be anything but easy, revealing just how accustomed we are to every last one of our creature comforts. As we give something up for Lent, what do we gain? What do we learn about ourselves? What are we making of the world?

1. What does giving something up for Lent assume about the way the world is?

For many of us, giving up something for Lent assumes that the something we’re giving up is inherently bad and shouldn’t really be delighted in the rest of the year. Or, at least, that the amount of delight we receive from this something is bad. In other words, even though the world was made for human pleasure, we feel quite ambivalent about enjoying it. However, giving up something for Lent doesn’t have to mean this. For many people, it’s not the thing per se that is at issue—it’s their relationship to the thing. The act of giving that thing up merely serves to expose what otherwise has remained hidden.

—Adam Young

Lent assumes not only a tension between good and evil, but a healthy tension between good and good; it assumes that there is a right ordering of good things.  Beyond critiquing the dissonance of a broken world, Lent looks toward the harmonies possible when things fill their proper place amongst virtues.  In giving up a good thing for a time, we develop a healthy longing for it, which in turn provides us the space to place it where it belongs in the hierarchy of our desires. 

Lent also assumes that there is a proper cycle to desire: that it is right to long for a Savior, that it is right to enjoy in His presence on Earth, that it is right to mourn for His death, and that it is right to rejoice in His resurrection.  All good desires are this way; Lent gives us the room to appreciate this.


There are things that are not bad or evil in themselves, but nevertheless may, because of our own weaknesses, enslave us.  To steel ourselves to leave these things behind, or put them aside, is liberating, and we were made to freely live for God.


That the biggest obstacles to desiring God are His blessings to us (CS Lewis, I think).

—Shu Ming

Giving up something for lent assumes that our relationship with God is broken and that sometimes we need to take drastic measures to remind ourselves of our need for and reliance on Him.

It assumes that too often we will seek to meet our felt needs in our own strength instead of relying on him to sustain us.

2. What does giving something up for Lent assume about the way the world should be?

We should be living in anticipation of something much more grand and glorious, and looking forward to a no-holds-barred feast that will get progressively better as it goes on. Why bemoan (or worse, try to hoarde) the comparatively meager victuals we have now? You’ve got an invite to the Mother of all Parties. 

There’s nothing quite so sweet or satisfying, so celebratory as that first taste of wine (or chocolate, or whatever you gave up) after the Easter vigil. It makes the difficulty of maintaining your Lenten discipline (BTW: nothing compared to 40 days in a desert) worthwhile. When I contemplate how sweet life will be when we’re ‘further up and farther in’ it puts a different filter on how I view my immediate context: I didn’t do anything to deserve the invite I’ve been given, others want to be invited too, and we may as well get busy now helping recreate the world as it will one day be in all its fullness.

Jeff Wentling

I think our society alludes that deprivation is detrimental. Many act as if it is our right to have all that we (think we) want right now. But, where is the discipline in that? The world should be a more disciplined place, and the act of giving up something for Lent helps us to do that not only for personal growth but for the pursuit of a more Christ-centered lifestyle.

Sarah G.

It assumes that the world would be a better place if we cultivated a consciousness of our need for communion with God, and a greater reliance on him instead of an idolisation of our own strength and abilities.

3. What does giving something up for Lent make possible?

Freedom.  By giving up such a tight attachment to something, whatever it is, we stop being like the monkey unable to pull its hand from a jar because it won’t let go of the banana inside.  In the process, we become better able to receive from the Holy Spirit and live with integrity.

—Kristy Harding

Love Kristy’s comment - yes, it makes freedom possible.
It also makes possible a deepr intimacy and walk with God.

4. What does giving something up for Lent make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

Living an unexamined life.

—Kristy Harding

Believing God is central to your life, but subconsciously placing other things above Him. (Same as Kristy’s response, actually)

—Shu Ming
5. What new culture is created in response?

A culture that it neither hedonistic nor ascetic, but one of joy upon joy, where each desire produces joy in its own right and within its proper constraints. Joy cascading down from the Creator into all of His good and perfect gifts in their proper sequence. 

A re-imagining of the law, where the law becomes a mechanism for managing the harmonies between good things.  A world where laws free us to enjoy desire, and foremost amongst them our desire for God.


A culture where good things are enjoyed in moderation, and are made all the sweeter because of it.

—Shu Ming

Sacrifice reminds me to love for the sake of the beloved. Abstinence teaches me to value things for what they are, rather than always thinking about how much I crave them.

Lent is about eating good chocolate chip cookies because they are good, instead of bad chocolate chip cookies because I didn’t eat enough breakfast.


A culture is created in which God, not chocolate/food/coffee/whatever, is my all in all.

I live as though my life did not rely on me, and demonstrate to others that my flourishing is not subject to my circumstances or my emotions, but to my relationship with the God who transcends all needs and desires.