Is Lent about self-denial?

March 22, 2011

I grew up around evangelical church leaders who were hardcore about spiritual fasting, sometimes going a week on just water or 40 days on just fruit juice. (I never made it more than a day.) When I started running in mainline circles, I was thrown by the way people used the word "fast" to mean giving up chocolate or beer or television.

So I have some sympathy for Jeffrey MacDonald's call for recovering serious self-denial as a Lenten discipline. I also appreciate Tim Suttle's point about constant satiation, the status quo for Americans of any degree of privilege:

The sad result of satiation is that we lose any sense of mystery and wonder. Satiation dulls the imagination and healthy spirituality loses out to the pursuit of the ultimate experience. In our culture satiation is much easier to achieve than character. Lent can be the antidote.

I'm struck, however, by the fact that neither MacDonald nor Suttle addresses the fact that for Protestants, Lent has never been just about self-denial. Historically, those Protestants willing to acknowledge Lent at all have done so in large part by observing spiritual disciplines. Instead of (or in addition to) eliminating bad or superfluous things, we've added good ones.

But in MacDonald's view, U.S. Christians are "remaking [Lent] as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe." He continues:

Today Lent is widely ignored in Christian America. Seasonal sacrifices, if observed at all, tend to be token. For Catholics, "abstaining" can now consist of sumptuous fish dinners on Fridays; even a Good Friday "fast" can include two small meals. Some Protestants conveniently eschew sacrifice altogether - if no one can earn divine favor, why bother? Still others bring a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, marked by promises to exercise daily or do without sweets for a few weeks. True deprivation is rare. As a pastor I know once told me, giving up something for Lent "is kind of a big joke."

How did Christianity's most serious season become a joke in this supposedly religious country?

I'll fess up to not being above joking around about Lenten disciplines (search this page for the phrase "jelly beans"). But candy-based disciplines aside, I'm drawn most to those Lent practices defined positively, to increased attention to prayer and meditation and fellowship (with soup and bread).

What do you think? Is MacDonald onto something here, or does his argument suffer from too narrow a view of what Lent is?


Lent and self-denial

I tend to believe that what God wants most of all from us is a relationship. Strip away the over consumptive tendencies, the self-indulgence, and constant satiation and one might be more able to focus on God without all the clutter. I don't think that is such a bad thing to do in the small window of Lent. But self-denial without an increased focus on our relationship with God, is meaningless. Doing with less also bonds us with those who do with less all the time. Doing with less, can also help bond us with Christ who did with less most of the time.