Why are you giving something up for Lent?

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. — 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NIV 1984

I’ve always found the tradition many people have of depriving themselves of some arbitrary thing during the season of Lent to be a troublesome practice. In the many times I’ve asked, I’ve yet to have someone give me a convincing, Biblically-based reason why they do it.

The problem, as I see it, that people have in giving these things up for Lent is that it is not a fast with an intent of change. The purpose of the fast, just like the purpose of the whole season of Lent, is to prepare ourselves in mind and body to more fully embrace the reality of the saving work Christ finished on the cross and for the work of righteousness we have inherited as a result.

To me, the purpose of the Lenten fast is preparation, not just for Good Friday and the festival of Easter, but for the next leg of the journey all Christians find themselves a part of as they struggle toward heaven. To me, Lent is like those last intensive days of training just before an athlete competes for the prize, and I can never figure out how giving up meat or coffee or chocolate figures into that idea.

So, to me, the idea of the Lenten fast should not be to deprive myself of something that I fully intend to return to once the fast has ended, but to put an end to something that the insight of my faith and my conscience tells me could stand between me and eternal life. If that is the purpose of the Lenten fast, then the New Testament is full of the kinds of things we should give up for Lent and forever after that, and meat or coffee or chocolate is never among them.

Further, the Lenten fast should not just be about putting something off but also about putting something on. If we are truly preparing ourselves to run the race with the intent of winning the prize, then what we wear is as important as what we don’t.

In the end, that is the purpose of the Lenten fast, to put aside more forcefully our sinful natures and to put on more firmly the nature of righteousness. It is then, I think, that we have fulfilled the intent of change the fast has always carried with it.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

–Colossians 3:1-17, NIV 1984