Question: Every year at the beginning of Lent we are invited to undertake Lenten disciplines which involve self-denial. It’s always hard to decide what to give up for Lent. I don’t want to give up something trivial. I also want to be able to do what I intend. Can you give some suggestions?
Updated February 22, 2020
Frank answers: “Discipline” has a place in Christian life. The Greek word askesis, from which we derive the term “asceticism”, refers to the physical discipline undertaken by an athlete in training. In Greek philosophy it also came to mean self-restraint. Ascetical practices, such as fasting, are an important part of the spiritual life.
St. Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 where he compares the living of the Christian life to running a race. He pointed out that athletes run to win a prize at the end and in order to compete they discipline their bodies. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” St. Paul says that he “punishes” his body and “enslaves” it, “so that after preaching to others I myself should not be disqualified”. In other words, he exercises bodily self-control. And since we are our bodies, controlling ourselves means controlling our bodies and physical desires.
The season of Lent is 40 days because it connects us spiritually with Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, depending on God to lead and sustain them, and Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil. The Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent is always the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
Lent has been called “spring training” for the Christian life. That’s appropriate, at least in the northern hemisphere. (“Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencthon,” which means the lengthening of the days, i.e. springtime). Training for athletes requires a disciplined regimen. The particular disciplines (ascetical practices) of Lent are the three “notable duties” that Jesus comments on in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday. These practices were already observed in Judaism. In the order in which they are listed in Matthew 6 they are: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The preamble to these spiritual practices as Jesus comments on them is “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6:1).
Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, “whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.” In other words, don’t look for recognition for your charitable giving. “And whenever you pray” don’t “stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners.” In other words, don’t try to impress people with your piety. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal.” In other words, don’t put on a performance. Jesus is recommending a hidden discipline known only to God. But he’s also not calling for a neurotic scrupulosity in which we fret over how secret our almsgiving, prayer, and fasting can be. The point is that we just go about doing these things without calling attention to ourselves.
The important thing about Lent is that we focus on God and what God has done for us in Christ rather than on ourselves. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life it’s easy to lose focus. Lent is a time to focus again on God’s saving acts for us in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and our call to follow Christ in the way of the cross.
One of the ways to re-focus on the passion of Christ is to adopt the Lenten disciplines. These disciplines are not supposed to be some kind of punishment. The point of observing them is to do something that will catch our attention every day, and every time our attention is caught, we focus our mind on God, remembering what God has done for us in the sacrifice of his Son, and what we are called to be as disciples of the suffering Christ.
There are three basic kinds of disciplines. One is giving up something, another is doing something proactive, and a third is adding something to our life. Let’s begin with giving up something, since that’s what most people think the disciples of Lent are about.
Giving something up.
When we take something out of our life, it’s to remind us that we depend on God and nothing else. You can survive without all kinds of things you’re used to having—but you can’t survive without God. A traditional thing to give up for Lent is some kind of food. In fact, the primary emphasis in Lent is fasting. The Germans call it “Fastenzeit” (fasting time).
Some of the faithful would abstain from all animal products during Lent (meat and dairy), while others would allow the consumption or fish or fowl. Traditionally, a person fasting for Lent would abstain from all foods until late afternoon or early evening, when a simple meal is taken. With two small snacks during the day, that’s just enough to keep up your strength, but not enough to satisfy your desire to eat. However—and this is very important!—you should not give up food if your motivation is to lose weight or improve your health. Then it’s about you and not about God. You might undertake a diet, but that program should be unrelated to what you give up for Lent. If you give up a particular food, it’s so that every time you crave it (and you will since you’re consciously abstaining from it!), and then decide not to have it, your attention is caught and directed back to God. By changing our menu we remind ourselves that we’re in the season of Lent and we’re focusing on God. Sundays are not fast days because they are the Lord’s Day, the day of the Eucharistic feast. But this is no reason to commit an act of gluttony to make up for the previous six days of fasting, In fact, the Eastern Churches still maintain the Lenten fast on Sundays; it’s just a lesser fast in which wine and oil are allowed.
You could also give up a bad habit, something that is interfering with your Christian life. Is it gossiping, swearing, coveting? This kind of thing is really up to you to decide for yourself.
Doing something proactive.
Almsgiving goes with fasting. If we’re not spending money on one thing, we have it to give to something else. But, of course, most of us have plenty of loose change to give away and can still afford a sumptuous fish dinner. The important advice from our Lord about almsgiving is that the right hand should not know what the left hand is doing. That means giving without calculating how much we are giving. Giving without expecting a receipt for our tax records. In my last parish (Immanuel, Evanston) I instituted a Lenten alms basin. When we came to Holy Communion during Lent we emptied all the loose change in our pockets and purses into the alms basin. The children caught on to this and began bringing their coins from home in plastic baggies and emptying them into the alms basin. (Children should be a part of the Lenten disciplines in a household.) We gave our Lenten alms, which totaled hundreds of dollars by Easter, to a local food pantry or soup kitchen. Alternately, you might buy gift certificates to a grocery store or a fast food restaurant to pass out to the “homeless” who beg for money on our urban streets. Maybe you could give some of your time to the community.
Your life is already busy and full, so adding one more thing might seem impossible. But you should choose something that you need in your life—something that the other things in your life need to make room for. For example, you might be unhappy with your prayer life. Perhaps you pray irregularly, or not all. In training you start with a light load and build up. You might want to build up to a morning and evening prayer office. But a start might be to make the sign of the cross in remembrance of your baptism and say the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed every morning when you get up and every night before you go to bed. It is a small thing, but it catches your attention—you’ll start noticing that every day that lies ahead of you belongs to God, and every day that lies behind you was guided by God.
Those who are tumbling out of bed and rushing to get going for the day might even do this little devotion in the shower. This might be an especially meaningful devotion for youth who have just been confirmed and studied the Catechism. Let the running water remind you of your baptism and your call to follow Christ. Let your nakedness prompt you to think about how you stand exposed before God at all times as both sinful and holy. Let the running water remind you of the teaching in Luther’s Catechism that every day the old Adam and Eve in us must be drowned and be put to death so that every day the new person we are called to be rises up, cleansed, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
You could also add bodily exercise to go with your fasting. Some people belong to a gym or do running or swimming or practice yoga. You could make an intention to be more regular in your exercise regimen.
Lent spans late winter and early spring when the weather might still be cold, snowy or rainy. What exercise could you do at home that would not take a lot of time, would be vigorous, and could be sustained for 40 days (with Sundays off)? Sit-ups and push-ups? Holding plank? These are all great core strengtheners that would work well with your Lenten diet, and perhaps these exercises would remind that what Christ did for our salvation he did with his body.
One of the best all-around stengthening exercises is simply holding plank in its various forms: straight, side, supported on the hands and full arms (as below) or on the elbows and forearms(as above). Undertake this for the 40 days of Lent and see how much time you can increase length of the hold. It will increase by seconds, not by minutes. And some days there will be setbacks. There are spiritual lessons to be learned from doing a plank challenge as well as lessons about your body and mind.
Maybe you could give some of your time to the community. You could add an hour a week volunteering in an overnight shelter, a soup kitchen, a senior center, or an elementary school—wherever your gifts could be used best.
You could also add attending a midweek prayer service or Bible study.
What if you mess up? It’s not the end of the world. A Lenten discipline isn’t a pact between you and God so that you’re in big trouble if you tumble exhausted into bed at light without a prayer or need to break your fast because you’re a guest in someone’s home. A spiritual discipline should be undertaken freely and lovingly, with the intention of honoring God, not impressing him. Every day is a fresh start. Look into your heart in the days before Lent begins and see if there is a practice that is a fit for you.
It is also a discipline to plan ahead so that you’re not wondering what you will do when you receive your ashes on Ash Wednesday and hear the call to undertake the disciplines of Lent. Fasting, for example, requires planning menus so you can make appropriate shopping lists. If you’re intending to undertake some kind of extra project, you need to think about what that might be. We used to receive some advance warning that Lent was coming with the three “count down” Sundays (Septuagesima – 70 days before Easter, Sexagesima – 60 days, Quinquagesima – 50 days). Lent is a season that requires preparation. The time to do that is before Lent begins. But like any exercise regimen, it’s never too late to begin.
Pastor Frank Senn