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Preparing for Lent

2010 February 16
by Julie Clawson

The point of Lent is not denial.

But for a long time I thought it was. Everything I heard about Lent revolved around the acts of self-denial. It was all about what object or habit one would give up and how hard it was to deny oneself of that thing. Of course that denial was meant to help one think about God and Christ’s sacrifice, but in truth the focus was always on the act of denial itself. The question always is, “what are you giving up for Lent?” as if that is what the season is about.

On one hand it’s understandable that we miss the point of Lent. In our religious traditions rituals and legalism are far easier to promote, understand, and implement than spirituality and faith. We can grasp rules. It is far easier to tell kids to obey rules than to explain to them why they should desire to act rightly. They then end up following the rules simply because the rules exist. When it comes to Lent we often do the same – denying ourselves something for the sake of denial. We give up chocolate or Facebook thinking that act of denial is the purpose of Lent. And we end up missing the point.

But Lent isn’t about denial, it is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter Christ’s sacrifice by endeavoring to become more Christ like ourselves. Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. Our acts of kenosis – denying ourselves in order to empty ourselves enough to allow God to fill us – are means to an end. They are disciplines that prepare us to be transformed. We deny ourselves so that we can be reborn as new creations – to live more fully as the Kingdom citizens God desires us to be.

So I am very tentative in choosing what disciplines I will follow during Lent to open myself up to God’s transforming power. I’ve discovered that for me personally, legalistic denial for the sake of denial often achieves the opposite purpose. Giving up coffee doesn’t make me a better follower of Christ, it just makes me more irritable and more of a bitch. Giving up Facebook doesn’t help me build community in the body of Christ; it simply helps me as a detached introverted person creep further into my shell. Those disciplines don’t assist me in emptying myself in order to let God in; they simply fill me with more of me.

I’ve come to learn that in order to become more fully the person God wants me to be, I instead need to make sacrifices that actually allow me to achieve those ends. Often those sacrifices are less about personal denial, and more about following disciplines that encourage me to love others more. In the past I’ve attempted to eat more ethically or shop fairly – which of course required discipline and sacrifice on my part (and a bit of denial as well), but the outcome of these outwardly focused changes was far more personally transformative than if I had just eliminated something from my life for forty days.

So for me the question for Lent is not “what am I giving up?” but instead “what can I do to allow God to transform me this season?” The answers to those questions might be the same for some people, for me changing the question shifted how I observed Lent. Whatever the case, I think it is important to understand what the ultimate purpose is behind why we engage in certain disciplines unless we miss their very point.

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38 Responses leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010

    Amen! I grew up in a tradition where Lent was not really celebrated much at all, and it has always seemed to me like the whole giving up this or that thing really misses the point completely.

    Like so many things in church history, I’m sure that the idea at the beginning was good, i.e. that we stop doing something so that we can spend more time in prayer/Scripture/meditation. How that got turned into giving up soda or chocolate for a limited amount of time and then gorging on it once easter comes around escapes me.

  2. February 16, 2010

    Last year I found it actually made sense to me to ADD something for lent. And really, to not talk about it constantly – letting it be between me and God.

  3. February 16, 2010

    I’m soooo glad you wrote this post.

    This is my first year observing Lent, and so I did a bunch of research to prepare. And you’re right. Turns out Lent is not just about giving up a vice for 40 days; it’s about preparation, reflection, and self-denial for the sake of drawing closer to Christ. This made me decide to not simply give something up, but to replace it with something else.

    So now I’m wondering whether it’s a good idea to share what we plan to “give up” with one another. What do you all think?

  4. February 16, 2010

    What I mean is, is it a good idea to make your fasting public?

    • February 22, 2012

      I think it’s good to talk about spiritual disciplines in a humble way, especially with the goal of seeking community / support. Obviously, not “I’m so great b/c I’m doing this” but “This is how I’m asking God to stretch me, here’s what I’m learning because of this practice.” Or something like that.

  5. February 16, 2010

    I’m giving up online shopping in the hopes of transforming my spending habits.

  6. February 16, 2010

    Well said, Julie. As for me, Lent is a season of reflection that transforms in the sense you describe. I tend to choose a discipline that fits with where I am on the journey as Lent begins. The outcome is the work of Jesus in me and I never quite know what to expect. Happy Lent!

  7. February 16, 2010

    Beautiful, true and good.

  8. February 16, 2010

    Thank you so much for this post, Julie – I finally understand what happened to me last Lent, thanks to your statement about Facebook. I have never been one to “give up” things for Lent, anyway, but I was very surprised to find myself compelled last year on Ash Wednesday to set up a Twitter feed to pray selections from the Daily Office.

    I did this for my own Lenten discipline and was very surprised to find that people followed…and followed…and followed. I finally had to ask for help from some of those followers and now, almost exactly one year later, we have become a true online monastic community. You can find us on Twitter here: @Virtual_Abbey

    If I had “given up Twitter” for Lent, I would have been very comfortable retreating into my introverted shell, as you explained in your post, but then this community would never have come into existence. Your succinct explanation really helped me understand this, in a way I had not been able to before. Thank you!!

  9. February 16, 2010

    Hi, Julie.

    I am one of the followers of @Virtual_Abbey that Raima started as a Lenten discipline…. and I agree that the purpose of Lent is kenosis. You have a lovely way with words, and expressing your faith–I just started to follow you on twitter.

    Rather than withdraw, I am motivated to connect during Lent. Connect by committing more to my prayer life and connecting with God, connect by committing to sharing my faith with others….

    Thank you for your presence here and your blog. I like the way you think!

  10. February 16, 2010

    Thoughtful and reflective post, expressing the feelings I often have during this season. Thanks for this essay, as well as so many of your thought-provoking posts.

  11. February 16, 2010

    Well said. Your thoughts on Lent last year have inspired me this year, and am in the middle of following the Daily Office and writing meditations along the themes of liberation and penitence. So if you ever wonder if what you write makes a different, click on over to my blog and boost your self-esteem a bit. :)

  12. February 16, 2010

    Thanks so much for sharing this. In my non-denominational church, I did not grow up with much (if any) teaching about Lent. Thank you helping me understanding the real idea behind it! (I may have to re-post some of this inspiring stuff (with attribution of course) if you don’t mind.)

  13. February 17, 2010

    Good thoughts, Julie! I designed a prayer guide this year in which the “climax” each day involves simply taking the time to grow in being loved by God and loving God. I find that a positive injection of God’s grace during Lent helps balance out the more negative “self-denial” stuff. Appreciate you writing this balanced view…

  14. February 17, 2010

    I appreciate the thoughts. For me, Lent is about the chance to start again, to realize that I don’t have to be trapped in the same thoughts and bad habits.

  15. February 17, 2010

    ur awesome julie. yes. dead on.

  16. February 17, 2010

    Rachel – good question on whether “fasting” should be public or not. As many here have shared, often it is the communal aspect of Lent that really connects with the spiritually. Having the support of others to encourage and guide can make the whole transformation aspect more intense and long-term. But there is always the danger of course that the fast becomes a point of pride where it is “all about me.”

    So I don’t think there can be a hard and fast rule here. For some the public aspect may help, for others making it public mars the transformation. For me there have been Lents where I have been very public because I needed the help of my community, this year, my devotions and disciplines are more of the sort that should best be kept private.

  17. February 17, 2010

    thank you julie – i really needed this as i prepare to set aside and take on things for lent – that is my goal for this afternoon and you helped me clarify it well. happy lent!

  18. February 17, 2010

    In the small, non-liturgical church I attend, we began a journey last November into the traditional church calendar. While I grew up liturgical, many in our family-of-faith had never heard of Lent.

    We have included fasting as part of our communal practice this season. However, as Julie writes, we are careful to remember denial is not an end in itself. We have chosen to fast as a community not only for our own transformation, but to enter into – even if only by dipping our toes – the suffering of those who do not choose their daily fast. This is part of the old tradition, as well. Also part of tradition is taking the food we did not eat (or the money not spent on groceries) and giving it to those who are hungry, so that the “feast” of Easter is shared.

  19. Phil Anthony permalink
    February 18, 2010

    I’m minded of a poem I published in our local Quaker newsletter ten or eleven years ago:

    Indwelling
    Thomas Edward Brown (1876)

    If thou could empty thyself of self,
    as to a shell disinhabited,
    Then might God find thee on the ocean shelf,
    and say, “This is not dead,”
    and fill thee with Himself instead.

    But thee are all replete with very thou,
    and hath such shrewd activity,
    That, when God comes, says,
    “This is enow unto itself—
    ’twere better to let it be;
    ’tis so small and full,
    there is no room for me.”
    </blockquote

  20. Phil Anthony permalink
    February 18, 2010

    I’m minded of a poem I published in our local Quaker newsletter ten or eleven years ago:

    Indwelling
    Thomas Edward Brown (1876)

    If thou could empty thyself of self,
    as to a shell disinhabited,
    Then might God find thee on the ocean shelf,
    and say, “This is not dead,”
    and fill thee with Himself instead.

    But thee are all replete with very thou,
    and hath such shrewd activity,
    That, when God comes, says,
    “This is enow unto itself—
    ’twere better to let it be;
    ’tis so small and full,
    there is no room for me.”

  21. kerry permalink
    February 19, 2010

    Julie, thanks for this discussion. Our home group (in a non-liturgical church) has been using the lectionary, and practicing Advent and Lent for almost 2 years which has been very helpful and a source of surprises. The blog discussion covers a lot of the same ground that we did last Lent….with many of us concluding the need to add something to our lives.

  22. February 20, 2010

    I was raised Catholic and continue to be. I’m all in favor if someone wants to give up something to better their lives, health ects. The point they miss is that as we fast we should direct some attention to God’s word, the bible, songs of praise, and anything that is fruitful to the soul. One pastor on TV says that if you fast and pray and dedicate time to God… he will answer your prayers. I believe that if we give up something that actually costs money, it would be wise to give it elsewhere, where it will benefit someone in a helpful Christian way.
    If anyone has a good song of praise for the season that can be sung in church, I would gladly accept the help. I heard one by Cutlus..don’t know if that’s how you spell it, but I believe it’s #1 on the charts… It’s about faith.

  23. February 21, 2010

    Hey, Happy was right! This is a beautiful post. Thank you!

    –Cathy

  24. February 21, 2010

    Late to see this post–but SO fantastic. Thank you Julie.

  25. Rebecca Hall permalink
    February 21, 2010

    I’m very late to this conversation, but I love Lent so I thought I’d offer my belated two cents. My church encourages people to add some practice or discipline, not take something away for Lent. I did this for years and was always enriched. But last year I decided to do something different and actually deny myself something – coffee. As you noted, it didn’t seem to do much other than make my mornings hell and force me to come up with alternatives (that didn’t do the trick) like tea and soda. But as the weeks wore on I came to understand and recognize the wisdom in what I was doing. Following Jesus, as we all know, is a way, a path. But what do we do when the paths we have in our lives are really ruts? Turns out, Lent is just the amount of time necessary to create new paths, new ruts that orient our lives toward God. Coffee doesn’t necessarily keep me from God, but other habits I have might. I now have the experience of forging a new path and I can apply that to any area of my life. It was a very liberating experience, ironically enough. So, I agree with you wholeheartedly that Lent is about transformation. I’m not saying it is the only or best thing to do, but self-denial is one way to get there.

  26. Cheryl Harader permalink
    February 14, 2012

    Julie, this posting expresses my feelings so well. I am a pastor and would like to share some of this in our church newsletter this week. How much are you comfortable with me sharing, and how would you like me to list your name? Again, thank you so much.
    Blessings, Cheryl (Rev. Cheryl Harader, pastor, First Baptist Church, Winfield, KS)

  27. November 6, 2013

    This is really the second posting, of urs I actually read through.
    Yet I personally enjoy this specific one, “Preparing for Lent
    | onehandclapping” the most. Regards -Jude

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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