This seems to be a popular question this time of year. Christians and non-Christians everywhere can be heard discussing what they will or will not be giving up for Lent. “I’m giving up chocolate”, “I’m giving up swearing”, “I’m giving up facebook” are just a few of the examples that you may hear people proclaim that they are giving up.
It is interesting how much we focus on what we are giving up instead of why we are giving something up. It almost turns into a competition where you hear one person say “I’m giving up cookies” only to hear their friend respond “Well, I’m giving up all sweets”. I think we’ve lost our perspective on why we “give things up” for Lent.
It isn’t surprising since our original sin that we inherited from our first parents is ultimately that of self-centeredness. Adam and Even thought life would be better if they could be like God. I would say that we’d be hard pressed to find a sin that wasn’t based in thinking of ourselves instead of others.
This is why we focus on what we’re giving up instead of why we are giving it up. We want to make sure that we’re the one who is sacrificing the most so that we can feel better than our friends or acquaintances who aren’t sacrificing as much. By sacrificing more, we may believe that we can earn just a little more of God’s favor or that we’re just a little more pious than those other people. It is funny because it sounds just like the pharisees in the Bible who many of us would criticize for their behavior.
This may lead us to ask the question, “Did Jesus say anything about giving things up for Lent?” Well that’s a silly question since Jesus didn’t celebrate Lent when he was alive…..or is it? While it was true he didn’t celebrate the Lenten season, he did have something to say regarding the concept of giving something up.
The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday comes from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 (ESV):
1″Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The warning that Jesus gives in the first verse is pretty direct, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Jesus is telling us that if we doing good things just so that other people can see us doing them and praise us for those good things that we will receive no reward from God the Father. Instead, we are directed to do these things in secret so that they are only between us and God. When we are doing these things in secret then we not motivated by the recognition that we may receive but by the desire to reflect God’s love for others.
The Gospel lesson gets even more specific when it comes to giving things up for Lent. One historic practice for Lent dates all the way back to Jesus’s time — the practice of fasting. The pharisees were pretty good at this one and we can gather from the text that they made quite a production out of it. Apparently while they were fasting they would make sure that other people knew it through the expressions on their faces, the way they allowed themselves to appear and the general way they carried themselves. This sounds similar to the way that we sometimes approach giving things up for Lent. We make sure that we tell everyone that we see and we may even complain about how hard it is to give up whatever we have chosen to do away with for the 40 days of Lent. Jesus warns against this and instructs us to clean ourselves up and to make sure that we present ourselves in a way that other people don’t know that we’re fasting or giving up other things. We are to let this be a personal activity solely between us and God.
(I should clarify and say that this doesn’t mean that we can’t enlist the mutual support of close, Christian brothers and sisters to support us in our attempt to give something up during Lent. It is important, however, that the conversations are focused on support and not boasting about our ability to give up something.)
So what should we be doing? We should use this Lenten season as an opportunity to focus on why we give something up. Giving something up for Lent is not to please God or to somehow show him how pious we can be. It is a practice in self-control for us and a chance to reflect on the sacrifice that Jesus made when he became man and dwelt among us and his ultimate sacrifice of giving up his life on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. When we are reminded of whatever we’ve given up for Lent we can use that time to focus more on prayer (The Litany maybe?), or maybe the time can be used to dive deeper into the scripture. Pick a book of the Bible that you’ve never read before and really explore what it has to say.
Repentance is the ultimate goal of the Lenten season as we travel toward Easter. Whatever we chose to do with our time should focus us on the cross and the repentant heart that God gives us. We must make sure that we avoid the temptation to focus on what we’re doing instead of focusing on why we’re doing it.
May God grant us all a blessed and repentant Lenten season!
My name is Tom. I'm fascinated by the ways that people, ideas, current events and theology interact with each other.