Is "giving up" during Lent meaningful?
Last week, Christianity Today released a provocative article titled "What To Give Up For Lent 2014?: Twitter Reveals Top 100 Choices." Based on more than 100,000 tweets, the top 10 of 100 listed "give-ups" of items revealed:
When lumped into categories the tweets are even more telling:
Renowned theologian Walter Brueggemann observed in a Sojourners article, "Lent is 'Come to Jesus' Time": "Lent is a time for fresh decision-making about reliance upon the God of the gospel. Such decision-making in Lent is commonly called "repentance." It's a time to reflect on the way in which God gives new life that is welcome when we recognize how our old way of life mostly leaves us weary and unsatisfied. Lent is a time to face the reality that there is no easy or "convenient" passage from our previous life to a new, joyous life in the gospel. The move is by the pattern and sequence of Jesus' own life, an embrace of suffering that comes with obedience, a suffering which comes inevitably when our lives are at odds with dominant social values."
The lists above reflect belief that giving up something means God will bless us and we'll become more spiritual. They don't tend to reflect spiritual values, or the fruit of an annual period of reflection on what Brueggemann terms "life with God."
I believe rightly observed Lenten observances, even possibly "give-ups," can enhance the Christian's life, bringing them closer to God, with a right relationship. But the focus is on internal work that may go undone during the year. Some religions repeat a mantra that they don't need Lent, because every time they worship they celebrate the life of Jesus, his birth, death, burial and resurrection. Their worships may offer challenge questions such as, "If you died tonight would you have the assurance that you would wake up in heaven instead of hell?," invoking the "sinner's prayer" as an instant remedy. Clearly that's not anything close to true Lenten thought and practice. Lent is entering into a journey, not quick fixes.
Noted religious author Kathleen Norris, reflecting on the purpose of Lent in the U.S. Catholic blog, shared her changed perspective on Lent: "For years I let the word sin slide by without fully engaging my consciousness, or my conscience. I thought of sin as a list of don'ts and should-have-dones, and if I hadn't committed (or omitted) certain acts, sin was not a problem. It was only when I encountered the wisdom of the early church, specifically the theology of sin that developed among desert monastics, that I gained an understanding of sin that is particularly useful to me during Lent."
Further reflecting on the desert fathers' development of the "Seven Deadly Sins," Norris observes: "The psychology is ancient but sound; as I recognize a temptation to sloth or envy for what it is, as I haul it out of the depths into the light of day, I weaken it and allow for the possibility of transformation, or what Saint Benedict termed 'conversion of life.' This, it seems to me, is the basic work of the Christian: to admit to my most basic temptations to do evil, and resist them. And as I do so, I free the virtues to act on me. My sloth might convert into zeal, my envy into gratitude. This is the discipline -- and the joy -- of Lent." Rightly interpreted, Norris says Lent can be serious business, addressing deeper issues than chocolate consumption.
Many Lent-observing pastors and theologians note that Lent is about confronting our own mortality, recognizing our unworthiness apart from a strong belief in Christ's sacrifice, addressing issues in the life separating us from a "Life in God." At Ash Wednesday services, the officiate places ashes on foreheads, intoning, "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" (Genesis 3:19) and/or "Repent, and believe the Gospel" (Mark 1:15).
Foreshadowing Easter following Lent, theologian N.T. Wright, in his book "Surprised by Hope," shares: "if Lent is a time to give things up, Easter ought to be a time to take things up. Champagne for breakfast again -- well, of course. Christian holiness was never meant to be merely negative. Of course you have to weed the garden from time to time; sometimes the ground ivy may need serious digging before you can get it out. That's Lent for you."
Lent's a time to focus on our separation from God, look more deeply and turn back. It can be a powerful force in one's life but it's more than a few "give-ups."
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.
By Chris Thompson