Lenten meditation: Old habits

Photo by Yosmer Pirela
Photo by Yosmer Pirela

We all know what’s supposed to be good for us, for our physical health and well-being.  Eat right.  Exercise.  Get enough sleep.  For many of us,  however, the question is whether these goals are as compelling to us as the bad habits we’ve put in their place.

Last year, I purchased a Fitbit tracker to monitor my activity level.  I was horrified when the little gadget showed me in no uncertain terms just how sedentary I had become.  Rather than launch into some kind of radical fitness program that I wouldn’t sustain, I began to make small but definite changes in my habits.  Now, instead of circling around and around trying to find the parking space closest to a store, I park at the opposite end of the lot and walk.  At work, instead of taking the elevator, I take the stairs.

But old habits can be hard to break.  Sometimes, I still find myself standing with my back to the stairs, unthinkingly pushing the button to call the elevator.  Then it dawns on me: What am I doing?   I shake my head, turn around, and trudge up the stairs to my office.

In recent years, during Lent, my wife and I have made the commitment to stop eating processed sweets or foods made with white flour.  We know the risks associated with such foods, and Lent seems as good a reason as any to embrace the discipline needed to cut them out of our diet.

But they’re ubiquitous.  For example, as I write this, I am sitting in the customer lounge of our local Toyota dealership, having my car serviced.  Refreshments are provided free of charge: coffee and donuts, the very epitome of what we avoid at Lent.  And things are no different at church or in the office.  When food is set out for people to share, it’s almost all made with white flour, sugar, or both.  And how many times have I found myself robotically reaching out to take some sticky snack before jerking back my hand?

Oh, but then comes Sabbath, when all bets are off.  The day of rest means we don’t have to fast, right?  We don’t have to stick to our commitment.

I understand foregoing the fast on resurrection day.  But in a case like this, a different and curious logic can be at work: Six days shall you eat right and exercise, but on the seventh day, go right ahead and pig out to your heart’s content.

I’m not advocating, of course, that we replace freedom with legalism.  Nor am I condemning chocolate as the work of the devil — especially not with all the friends I have who consider it the food of the angels.

But let me speak for myself: it’s only when I fast that I begin to recognize and take stock of my taken-for-granted habits of self-indulgence.  And restraint is not an end in itself; discipline is not just a matter of telling myself what I can’t have.  The other half is cooperating with God to rework desire itself.

Without that, Sabbath becomes little more than time off for good behavior.  And that’s poor preparation for the celebration of resurrection life at Easter.