Lent! How many people go through Lent and end the same way they started? Without much change. Little growth in holiness. Just giving up Coke or candy with no real inner change. Our hope is that this will offer you some new and helpful ideas for Lent to help you have a most productive Lenten season of Lent ever.
The Origins of Lent
The origins of Lent are, in fact, Biblically based. Matthew chapter 4 tells us that Jesus went out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights before beginning His public ministry. He prayed, fasted, and emptied Himself everything before the Father. That is the foundation of Lent. Lenten practices are meant to mimic Jesus’ example. In a sense, we go out into the desert to pray, to fast, and to reflect on our life. Additionally, we empty ourselves of that which does not belong to God or is hurting our relationship with Him.
There are only three requirements laid out by the Church for the Lenten season:
- Pray more
- Give Alms
What is the Purpose?
Giving up something (like candy, soda, coffee, etc.) is not a requirement. This may surprise most people that we aren’t required to give something up for Lent. With that being said, doing so can help us to discipline ourselves and our hearts. The sole purpose of Lent is to come closer to God and to grow in holiness.
Lent is meant to help us to deepen our relationship with Jesus and to prepare our souls for meeting Him someday. By the end of Lent, we should be in a better place than when we started. We should be closer to Jesus, more purified, and have removed some obstacles which keep us from God.
Giving Up vs. Growing
For many years in the past, I gave up candy for the 40 days of Lent. Not a bad thing. I saved all the candy I would have eaten and put it all in box. At the end of the 40 days, I gorged myself on all the wonderful and delicious candy. Perhaps, I missed the point. Did I utilize discipline through Lent? Yes. Did I return to the same gluttony I was trying to discipline myself from. Also, yes.
Likewise, If I gave up music for Lent, I would go right back to binging music every minute of the day. Giving up these things were not causing me to grow in holiness, or at least not that long. These things were not bringing me closer to Jesus. Or if they did, not for that long.
To be clear, it’s not wrong to give up candy, soda, music, coffee, or chips, but the question is: are you growing closer to Jesus long term by this? What is your motivation for doing so? While becoming more disciplined certainly is not wrong, are we growing in holiness? Often, when most people hear Lent, they are not overly excited about it! On the contrary, they are usually met with a sense of dread or burden. A lot of times it takes on a dark or depressing tone.
A New Way of Fasting
Giving up something is a bit like dying to ourselves, and that is a difficult process. And necessary. To avoid setbacks, one way I have learned to counter that sense of being overwhelmed and subsequently discouraged, is to not give up everything all at once. Many people make goals that are far to big, like praying 2 hours a day or only eating a strawberry each day at breakfast. It’s not always realistic and ultimately sets one up for failure. So, we want to make our goals practical.
Here’s what I do now, and I offer it as an example for you to consider as you discern what you can do:
I give up something in order to discipline myself. For instance, I will “fast” from a particular sin, an imperfection, or a bad habit so that at the end of Lent I will in a better place spiritually. With a better discipline and the uprooting of sin, I will be closer to God and on a better path.
A practical example is video games. I also like music. In the past, I would play video games far too often or listen to music obsessively: in the car, the bedroom, the kitchen, working, etc. It was difficult to learn to play games and listen to music in moderation. It took three consecutive Lenten seasons of giving up music to break that addiction. Finally, I was able to listen to music in moderation and still do to this day.
Video games was more difficult. I gave them up entirely, but as soon as Lent was over, I made up for lost time by playing endless amounts of video games. No lesson learned. To this end, I decided on doing Lent differently two years ago. For example, instead of just giving up video games completely and then binging after Lent, I allowed myself to play twice a week. Naturally, there were periods where I had to go without playing and decided to pray or do something more constructive instead. This more reasonable pattern taught me to play in moderation as relaxation rather than addiction. I could still enjoy games but in the right amount and at the right times. That is a lesson I want to cultivate in life with many things. This lesson was well learned, and it continued long after Lent was over.
Other people struggle with this sort of thing but in other areas like social media, binging Netflix, watching the News, their phones, work, gym, and so on. Often, we scroll for hours and hours without even realizing it. Perhaps then, consider cutting down your time on social media or watching TV significantly less during Lent so you can spend more time in prayer, more time reading the Bible, or more time talking to actual people and building relationships, doing needed chores, etc.
Remember, we are not suggesting to give these things up cold turkey. We understand that’s not always realistic, but what if you allowed yourself to be on social media only three days a week? Alternately, you could limit yourself to 15 minutes every day, and no more. It will be difficult, but by limiting the amount of time and/or frequency, you will be teaching yourself a lifelong and necessary lesson of moderation and not making idols out of created things which leads to the path of destruction.
What is Your Struggle?
Moderation is extremely important in life. Sadly, it is not something that we do in the West very much anymore. The most important thing to do is to start at the beginning. Let’s say that we gossip often. Through Lent, start working on reducing that and even omitting it completely from your life. Read up on how to do that. Watch videos with advice. Work on taming your tongue and don’t speak poorly about others behind their back.
Perhaps you will not be perfect by the end of Lent, but the goal is to be in a much better place, or overcoming it entirely. In my own life with my own sins, I started making small steps toward improvements in my life a few years ago, and I was so happy with how much closer I came to Jesus and removed some bad habits, that I continued to work on it long after Lent.
Encouraged by my improvement, I did not want to stop and decided to continue working on that habit until Christmas so that I could root it out of my life. I did the same after Christmas so that by the time the next Lenten season began, I chose something else and work on. We don’t have to stop at the end of Lent.
Work on something that keeps you from Christ:
- laziness or sloth
- social media
- no/poor prayer life
Whatever your struggle or addiction is, that is what you need to work on.
Maybe you don’t pray at all. Then, that is what you need to set to work on. You need to develop a great and vibrant prayer life every single day during Lent. Whether it is the Rosary, Bible, reading Liturgy of the Hours, or more quiet prayer. Whatever will help you to grow in love with Jesus Christ our Lord; that is what you should focus on.
Jesus doesn’t want you to give up candy or coffee if you don’t have a prayer life. He would much rather have a relationship with you than for you to give up candy or chips. He would much rather have you work on gossip, or controlling your temper by not yelling at your kids, than giving up chocolate or soda.
Our relationship with God and removal of sin is infinitely more important than fasting from snacks or trying to “get healthy during Lent” (which is more of a New Year’s Resolution). Now, these things can be useful too. Like giving up something hard like coffee. Each time we find ourselves craving that coffee, for example, we can consciously resolve to offer it up to Christ as an act of love who gave us the ultimate sacrifice. We can ask for grace to be more disciplines and temperate in our life. For this reason, giving up things is good. It creates a discipline. However, working on your bad habits is also necessary.
Whether Lent has not started, or you are in the midst of it, sit down tonight. Take some time to to reflect and ponder. Ask: “What is keeping me from God? What is that obstacle or that block in your life that is preventing me from coming closer to God?” Perhaps you will realize that you watch too much TV and then don’t have much time to pray or do spiritual reading. Or maybe you work all the time and it has become an obsession and you need to foster the relationships again in your life and other things that God calls you to do. Building actual relationships is why we are on this earth in the first place.
This Lent, your goal is to empty yourself, to give up things that are obstacles to your spiritual life and to make more room for Jesus. Think of it this way: if you were going to die at the end of Lent, would you be ready? If you’re going to die tonight, would you be ready? And suppose in this scenario, God gave you 40 more days to live. What would you want to work on in those 40 days to make sure that you would come closer to Christ and be ready for heaven. What are your obstacles to salvation?
Don’t Trade Out
Remember, the goal is moderation in working toward success. I am not saying necessarily give up all your music or social media or your phone. I am not saying give up all Netflix, TV and entertainment throughout all of Lent. While you certain can, the goal is success, long term success. So, if success means to give up music three or four days a week, or if it means we allow ourselves to watch movies or Netflix only three days a week, you are more likely to succeed than cutting these out completely. You are also more likely to learn this moderation for after Lent.
Warning! Do not replace one addiction with another. “Well, I cannot watch Netflix tonight, so I will just go on Facebook for 2 hours and see what everyone is up to.” Commit to giving up these things and build better habits. Build better relationships. Have game nights with your family. Perhaps making a night where you and your family find a church that has confession and go to confession together, or pray the Stations of the Cross together, etc.
Make this your best Lent ever! Start now!