I’ve lived my whole life in the Bible Belt, so conversations with classmates, colleagues, or friends about what I’m giving up for Lent seem totally normal. Every year, there are the usual suspects: desserts, candy, Coca-Cola, coffee, chocolate. Growing up, my understanding was that by giving something up for 40 days, I might identify better with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross (and perhaps his 40-day fast in the desert, as told in Matthew 4:1-11 and the other Gospels). However, Lent conveniently coincides with the weeks leading up to Spring Break (at least for us public school kids), so cutting carbs for Jesus is a multipurpose exercise. But let’s be real, it’s mostly an attempt to shed pounds, not to grow closer to Jesus.
A Lenten fast (if you could even call it that) was a part of my Protestant upbringing. To some, it’s considered a Catholic tradition. Some people give up meat on Fridays, while others give up things every day of the week except Sunday. Some people think the Sunday “rule” is cheating. These differences in opinion about what we are “supposed” to do during Lent were always puzzling to me. What I recently discovered is that the Bible doesn’t actually mandate the observance of Lent. There are plenty of passages about the practice of fasting, but none of them imply that it must be done leading up to Easter. So it’s no surprise that nobody can totally agree on what Lent is supposed to look like.
I’ve never really been one to diet, but I did my fair share of giving up chocolate for Lent. I once picked out all of the chocolate chips from a roll of cookie dough that I absent-mindedly bought just before Ash Wednesday. Now that was a sacrifice… at least of my time. But did it provide me with a better understanding of Jesus’ journey to the cross and His sacrifice? Nah.
True fasting is a spiritual practice. It’s not one that I choose to take part in, but it is one for which I have immense respect. For me, cutting out carbs or desserts for 40 days is a diet. If I want to lose weight, I’d rather commit to working out regularly and/or eating more intentionally for an arbitrary set of 40 days. I don’t want to pretend I’m doing it for Jesus during Lent. However, I don’t want to over-generalize; there are some exceptions. If dessert or something else became an idol in my life, then sure, I’d consider giving it up for Lent. But I don’t want to turn a desire to lose a few pounds into a 40-day Lenten #humblebrag.
A few years ago, I decided to reflect on what a truly meaningful Lenten practice might look like for me. As an analytical person, I find myself thinking–and consequently talking–about things that aren’t to my liking. Once I took a step back, I realized that complaining is an impediment to me experiencing and expressing gratitude. As a Christian, the thing for which I should ultimately be most grateful for is the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. So, I concluded that giving up complaining for Lent would be something that was truly meaningful in my preparation for Easter.
I’m on year four of this practice, and I’m currently on day nine of Lent. I’m failing spectacularly! However, making myself even slightly more aware of my tendency to complain is helpful. I have a “rule” that anytime I complain, I have to say something for which I’m grateful. When a workout class is getting hard, I thank God for my able body. When my husband gets home late from work, I thank God that he is willing to work hard to provide for our family. When I’ve just dried my hair and it starts to rain, I thank God for the roof over my head. You get the point. I also ask my friends to (lovingly) call me on my complaining.
So for me, giving up chocolate just isn’t going to cut it as a spiritual practice. If nothing else, a chocolate “fast” just shows my privilege. There are multitudes of people who don’t even have proper meals to eat everyday–forget about chocolate. Taking the time to thank God for my fridge full of food (probably around the time that I complain I’m “starving” and “have nothing to eat…”) makes me slow down and gain perspective. It reminds me that I don’t have these things because of my own merit; I am a recipient of blessings from God.
Ultimately, I’ve found that it’s more fulfilling to cultivate gratitude on a daily basis than to count down the days until I can binge on my favorite bar of dark chocolate. So that, my friends, is why I’m not giving up chocolate for Lent.
If you’re wondering what you might meaningfully give up, try this list of 19 things to give up for Lent that aren’t chocolate. And if you’re not giving up chocolate or sweets and want to make those cookies up top, you can find my friend’s recipe here.