In Catholicism and other Christian traditions, the idea behind giving something up for Lent is to make a sacrifice that is in some way a tribute to Jesus having made the ultimate sacrifice of his life to erase the original sin of humanity. In days of old, the Lenten sacrifices were meant to be a form of penance, a way of apologizing to God for one’s sinful nature. Even now, whatever one gives up is meant to be done as a gift to God. Back in the dark ages when I was in high school (also known as the late 1980s), priests would encourage parishioners in their Sunday homilies not to give something up for Lent. Rather, they would push for church members to do something positive instead. They argued that in today’s world, for most middle and upper class church goers, giving up soda for six weeks was not a real sacrifice that in any way made a decent gift to God. On the other hand, if one took the money one saved from not drinking soda and donated it to a homeless shelter or a food bank, that action made the sacrifice more valuable. Many of us who attended Sunday school or Catholic schools were even sent home with paperboard Lenten offering boxes to collect those funds for a specific charity. Likewise, instead of giving up chocolate, the priests encouraged people to make a donation of their time to a non-profit in need or to a community member who could use an extra hand.
I am no longer Catholic by any stretch of the imagination, yet it bewilders me when I see non-Christians using Lent as a reason to give something up. I even know atheists, who clearly do not believe in Jesus' sacrifice, who give up food items for Lent. For them, Lent seems to be just a time period between two big parties (Mardi Gras and Easter) that can help them with self-control and dieting. To me, it seems as though all the “cool kids” are doing it, so others jump on the bandwagon to use Lent as a means of moral support while they give up some high caloric item that isn't really good for them. I actually find this disrespectful to Christian traditions and beliefs. Almost no one in our American society would dream of using Ramadan as an excuse for a crash diet or a 30 day juice cleanse, yet co-opting a very holy Christian time period of preparation and spiritual cleansing to use as a time of dieting is seen as socially acceptable.
If you are someone who gives up food items or diets in some way for Lent, I strongly encourage you to examine your motivations. Why do you use this time period to give something up? Who benefits from you giving up your favorite treat? How do you use the money that you aren’t spending on those lattes or mochaccinos? Are you co-opting a devout religious time for something that has nothing to do with religion? Does this serve a higher purpose or is it an act of selfishness you are partaking in? Are you doing this act quietly or are you using it to get attention on Facebook or elsewhere? Having grown up with a narcissist who shamelessly sought attention, I've always appreciated the following Bible verses:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:1-4, NRSV).
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC