“What are you giving up for Lent?”

(#2 of 6 weekly Lenten reflections)

That’s the question we often ask of ourselves or each other around this time of year, though sometimes only in mock seriousness.  Truth be told, “giving up something” for Lent can be like a religious version of a New Year’s resolution: it’s something I really should have been doing the rest of the year, but I needed an extra excuse.  And hey, six weeks is longer than most New Year’s resolutions last, right?

Photo courtesy of ShutterstockFor me, typically, it’s meant cutting back on unhealthy forms of self-indulgence that have been building since Thanksgiving.  During Lent, I “fast” by avoiding white flour, sugar and added sweeteners, and caffeine in any form stronger than oolong tea.

(By the way, the idea that tea has more caffeine than coffee is misleading.  It come from comparing tea leaves to coffee beans–but a cup of coffee has much more caffeine than a cup of tea, and not all teas have the same caffeine content.)

There’s nothing wrong with disciplining myself in these ways.  The long-term benefit?  Even if I don’t avoid these things entirely the rest of the year, it’s easier to make healthy decisions about what I put in my body.

But here’s the thing.  Giving up white flour doesn’t just mean eating more whole wheat.  It also ups my appetite for potato chips.  I find myself thinking that chips are on the “Okay” list, so why not?  I can have all I want!  And it’s easy to start thinking of the Sabbath tradition of breaking the fast as a “cheat day” on which it’s perfectly acceptable to go to church and load up on donuts.

Even the ones with sprinkles.

If I abstain from one form of self-indulgence only to replace it with another, what’s the point?  If I practice self-discipline six days a week, only to go hog wild on Sunday, does that honor God?  For that matter, is that even what Lent is about?

Don’t get me wrong: I still think there’s value in what I’m doing, and I’ll keep doing it.  We live in a culture that seems increasingly to encourage us to satisfy any and every desire; disciplining ourselves against such beliefs and habits can be a countercultural step in the right direction.  If some form of fasting serves to make us less subservient to our appetites, that’s a start.

But then what?

Give me a week to think about it; I’ll get back to you in next Sunday’s post.