Q: Lent. I’ve tried giving things up, but it always seems a bit “hollow”. What should I do?
A: This is a great question. I think we all face this same challenge. We can find ourselves walking the tightrope between something so impossible that we end up abandoning it in a week, or we choose something so minimal that it is essentially worthless.
In addition, it can be hard to be honest about our motives. Are we giving up something out of love of God or because we would like to lose some weight? Are we doing this thing “just to see if we can make it”?
What is Lent for?
Let’s make this as simple as possible. Jesus talks about three areas that are indispensable regarding the Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For Lent, do one thing in each of these three areas.
What is one way that you can pray every day throughout Lent that will strengthen your relationship with Christ? Again, this is not merely about “challenging yourself”. This is about asking “What will help me get to know the Lord better?” You know yourself. You know what will actually help you grow. For the last couple of years, in addition to my normal prayer time, I spend an extra 15 minutes slowly reading and reflecting on the Gospels at night. It isn’t huge, but it really helps.
While we are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, your “fast” can be almost anything. If you have a difficult relationship with food, feel free to choose a penance that is unrelated to nourishment. A penance can be any time we say no to a good and natural desire out of love for God. For example, someone might decide to only check their email (or social media, or their smart phone) at certain times during the day. This would be an act of discipline and sacrifice oriented toward purifying their heart. Your penance could be not sweetening your coffee. Another penance could be getting out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and not hitting the snooze button.
While both prayer and fasting could be seen as being “all about you”, almsgiving is oriented toward the good of others. Who could you help this Lent? While this could be actual “giving money”, it could also be “giving time”. I know of people who have decided to write one letter per day throughout Lent. They decided that these letters would be positive notes of encouragement and gratitude. Of course, almsgiving could also be supporting the material needs of others. There are groups everywhere who need the support of Christians.
Ultimately, the question is: “God, what can I decide to do during this season that will make me more like you?”