Confession time. I don’t give anything up for Lent. I think, once, as a new Christian, I thought I should give something up, so I did the standard chocolate thing. Honestly, I don’t even recall how it went. I love my chocolate, so it may not have gone well. On the other hand, I am extremely stubborn, so if I swore I’d do it, it’s quite possible I made it through. I guess the point is, I don’t remember.
As a pastor, however, I have to face this Lent question. I do, because it’s here, and I don’t feel I can ignore it, which is usually the way I handle a lot of things on my calendar, including Lent. I prefer ignoring because thinking about anything that 1—messes with peoples’ traditions, 2—potentially questions their motives, and 3—asks serious questions about God and the crucifixion is going to get real scary real fast.
What I have to say is, I don’t get it. I’ve never done it. Never seen any reason to. For me. Not necessarily for anyone else. I’m not sure I’ve really understood about Lent.
Maybe I’m too much of a legalist for Lent observance. If I gave up desserts for Lent for instance, you know the first thing that would follow. Hmmm, if I eat this snickerdoodle at 3:00, is it a dessert or an afternoon snack? If I give up social media—hey, checking my Facebook while sitting in the car waiting to pick up a kid is totally a good use of time. Plus it’s purely for professional purposes.
You get the idea. Give me a rule, and I’ll find the loophole. Make me draw lines in my life of what is okay and what is not okay, and I become a line drawer. I will focus on where those lines are and what the precise definitions are, and it will become all about those lines. Those rules. Those loopholes. It will become not about sharing in Christ’s self-denial but about showing him my homework for the day and waiting for the grade to prove I followed the rules.
I’m not seeing it all bringing me closer to Jesus.
Again, I stress, I’m talking about me here. Maybe you don’t have tendencies toward loophole finding. (I did almost go to law school, after all.) But perhaps, it’s not just me. Clearly, the human race in general has a problem bending toward legalism. Jesus cautioned his followers against weighing out offering spices to the ounce while ignoring justice and mercy. Paul fought it (after being a part of it) in the church’s infancy. Jesus urged the rich young ruler to stop seeking the one thing he had to do to enter the kingdom and offer himself instead. I suspect rule dissecting is common to the human creature.
Checking off the rules on my wall of what I can and cannot get away with and still be okay with God is not the place I want to be at the holiest of seasons when I am called to give my body as a living sacrifice. This is a reason I flee from Lent more than embrace it. I know that stronghold in my heart. I’m good at finding my worth—dare I say salvation?—in my achievements and things checked off on a list. What I want to live in with God is not a grade but grace. For me, that’s a reason traditional Lent doesn’t work.
Another reason I struggle with understanding Lent is motivation. When I see people giving stuff up for Lent, I often note one of a few motivations:
I’m giving up ________ because it’s tradition. My church does it. I’ve always done it. It would be weird not to do it. To which I think, it’s my Swedish tradition to eat blood sausage and fish balls, but some traditions are meant to die. Quickly.
I want to lose weight, and giving up chocolate or ice cream or sugar is a sure-fire way to get rid of ten pounds AND sound really holy doing so. It’s a win-win.
When I give up something, I can talk about it on Facebook, so other people can see how holy I am. Unless I’m actually giving up Facebook, which means you’ll have to see how holy I am by my absence. Which does work, in a strange negative-energy sort of way.
And—do I really need to say this?
These are not good reasons.
So I’m giving up, say, chai tea lattes for forty days to advertise that I can give something up because that’s how much I love Jesus, everyone? Not only am I going to be cranky for forty days, but I suspect I will be no closer to Jesus than I was on Fat Tuesday.
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven.”
But the biggest reason for me? Sacrifice is not supposed to be a one-shot deal. I rebel at the idea that I can think about being like Jesus for only one season. Being like Jesus is supposed to consume my everyday will. Isn’t it flirting with apathy just a little to say I’ll work on this God thing seriously until Easter, and then, well, we’ll see after that?
I have many friends whom I deeply respect giving up some of these things for Lent. They are not people of apathy or loose motivations. They have reasons. They love God with all their mind and hands and heart and will. I want to figure out those reasons.
I decided to look into the original purposes of these forty days. There, maybe, I’d find answers for all my whys. The original purpose, apparently, was to prepare the believer—through prayer, repentance, giving, and self-denial. And another thing I read catches my attention. “The forty days of Lent was meant to remind us of the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert to prepare for his ministry.” That word ‘prepare’—it come again. But this time, there’s a reason. A preparation for something. A purpose behind the denial. And here it is—
Jesus can go out and do what he came to do, with laser-focus on why he’s doing it.
Would that change the way we do Lent?
I doubt that leaving chocolate behind is going to prepare me for loving the world. I don’t believe, in my heart of hearts, that giving up caffeine will give me focus on what matters going forward. What I need, if I’m going to understand and do this Lent thing, is to know what will bring me to a place where I’m more prepared to focus on what God put me here to do and, yes, just do it.
I need a practice toward something rather than a push away.
Now as I think about something to practice this Lent, I realize there is something I can do. I can move toward being more like him. I can practice something that will prepare me to love the world. I can focus on his humility and make it as much mine for forty days as I can, hoping it will take hold and last. Give up something? Maybe I’ll give up impatience, or lack of gentleness, or fear.
Lent should not be a time of making lists or grades but of opening myself to the riskiness and self-giving that marked Jesus’ last forty days. It’s always risky to look at Jesus and ask him if you know him well enough to be walking with him through life. It’s risky because—he’ll answer.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.