It’s Lenten season: Why it’s not always good to give up things for Lent

  • Rose Kennedy
  • For the AJC
12:29 p.m Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018

Just as Mardis Gras has popularized the idea of partying on Fat Tuesday before Lent begins, many of the people who now observe Lent itself are not following strictly religious notions.

»RELATED: What is Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and how do we celebrate?

Abstaining or fasting during Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, started as a Christian commemoration of Jesus' sacrifice during his 40 days of fasting in the desert leading up to his crucifixion. 

These days, no matter the religious affiliation, folks are giving up something for Lent, which lasts from Feb. 14-March 29, ranks right up there with donning beads on Mardis Gras or exchanging gifts at Christmas.

"The customs that surround the [Lenten] season have a quality to them that transcend religion," Time noted in 2015.

People can pick up advice on what to give up for Lent in many places on social media, with offerings from many organizations that are not rooted in any Christian beliefs. For instance, publications have commercialized the idea with listicleas like PopSugar's list of unhealthy foods to give up for Lent or the International Business Time's  list of abstaining suggestions like alcohol and meat.

But many of these sacrificial, difficult ideas making the rounds might have missed the boat, if you heed the words of modern day religious leaders. They're not objecting to the source of the Lenten suggestions, but to the idea that deprivation and guilt are the way to go. 

Below, religious leaders and others present perspective on why there’s more to Lent than just casual deprivation.

Sacrifice if it shows compassion.

In Time's 2015 "Pope Francis' Guide to Lent," for example, the Pope's bottom line was this: give up something for Lent only if it demonstrates compassion and enriches others.

The article's author, Christopher J. Hale, executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, reminded readers the Pope often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom:"No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great."

Rev. Mark Buetow at Higher Things, the "Dare to Be Lutheran" blog, also preached the need for Lenten observances that don't draw attention to the practitioner. He advised people not to use Lent as a time to make themselves feel bad, make themselves suffer because Jesus suffered, or show others they've "got some religion" for a month or so.

"Lent has often morphed into a season that's more about us and what we do or give up than it is a season where we are immersed in the suffering and death of Jesus as Good News," he wrote. 

While Lent is an appealing time to curb selfishness and put others first, shouldn't you be doing that anyway? Buetow asked. "It's too easy to make Lent into a season about you," he noted. "Here's your problem and here's your 40-day plan to get over it. That's a 'you' Lent and doesn't have anything to do with Jesus."

Along with helping others at Lent, Buetow said that "Lent is all about meditating upon and learning more and more about what Jesus underwent for you."

Abstaining, sacrificing is not about guilt and suffering.

Abstaining can still be meaningful during Lent, noted Buetow, just so long as it isn't about "feeling guilty or trying to take away something you like so that you can feel bad about what Jesus did for you." Instead, like the Pope, Buetow prefers the type of abstaining that benefits others.

"Just think of what a joy it would be to others if instead of spending your time watching TV, you spent time doing something with them, like talking to your parents, or spending time with a little brother or sister who looks up to you," he noted. "Or maybe giving up fast food a few times a week and putting the money toward an offering at church."

Giving up things during Lent isn't about doing something for yourself, or it shouldn't be, Buetow noted. "It's about learning from Christ to put all of our hope and trust in His word and to love and serve our neighbor in whatever ways they need us."

»RELATED: Ash Wednesday around the world

Suggestions for enriching Lent observances

Along with loads of the traditional "pick something hard and do without it for 40 days" Lent ideas, the folks at the Catholic youth ministry blog Life Teen also offered these suggestions that incorporate showing compassion or enriching others while being mindful of your own spiritual development:

Things to give up for Lent:

Things to start doing for Lent: