The Opportunity of Lent


Growing up in small towns in South Dakota and North Dakota, I can vividly remember students in my school observing the season of Lent. But to me, it only meant that our school lunch menu changed for a month and McDonald’s advertised their Filet-o-Fish sandwich for $1.00.

As I grew older, I began to understand more and more the spiritual significance and religious tradition behind the season. And even though I have always been open to the idea of a personal God who loves me and cheers for me, Lent was still never a season I observed.

But my mind was changed when I was invited by a mentor to observe the season by fasting from one controlling influence in my life for forty days. He promised life-changing personal benefits to the exercise. I trusted him. And so I chose fast food.

I was in a season of life (and a mindset) that lent itself to eating out often and I knew cutting out fast food was going to require great intentionality and self-restraint. It turned out to be an unforgettable forty day season and a valuable exercise in self-discipline—that was almost 12 years ago and I can still vividly remember eating the brown-bag meals in my car that I prepared each morning.

Since then, I have observed Lent a number of times. Each time, I choose one controlling influence in my life to fast from for forty days. And whether that be fast food, soda, or television, I have learned important life-changing lessons each time.

For example, by choosing to fast from one controlling influence in my life during the season of Lent, I have:

  • Learned humility. It is a humbling exercise to battle controlling influences in our lives. We are forced to stand face-to-face with our weaknesses and our humanity. And whether we win or lose over the course of the forty days, even the intensity of the struggle supplies profound humility.
  • Developed intentionality. Whenever we seek to remove habits in our lives, we are granted the opportunity to replace them with new ones. We are allowed to ask new questions about the life we are living and what new aspects we’d like to incorporate.
  • Developed deeper empathy for others. We are often quick to judge the weaknesses of others, but rarely put our lives under the same level of scrutiny. Battling through a season of fasting often forces us to realize that the adversary of addiction is far less easy to conquer than we have otherwise thought.
  • Fostered greater self-control. Just like a muscle, self-control grows stronger through use and exercise. Exercising self-control in one aspect of life (abstaining from coffee or chocolate) provides a greater possibility to utilize it elsewhere in our lives. Perhaps we would be more effective in overcoming impatience, anger, or indulgent eating in our lives if we exercised our muscle of self-control in other ways.
  • Confronted excesses in life. Many of the external items that subconsciously control our lives are not needs, they are wants (coffee, dessert, television, Facebook, etc.). But we have become so accustomed to having them in our lives on a daily basis, we too quickly confuse wants and needs. Fasting from one of these items for forty days helps put things back in proper perspective and gives us the strength to just walk away.
  • Saved money. Many of the influences that I have chosen to give up for Lent in past years cost money. Avoiding them for forty days has financial benefit during the season… and financial benefit going forward as the items are always reintroduced in greater moderation.
  • Saved time. Similar to the financial benefits, most of the controlling influences in our lives require time, energy, and attention. Removing them from our daily schedule provides extra minutes (sometimes hours) to our day.

Over the years, I have experimented with Lent in a number of different ways. And here are some of the most helpful tips I have learned:

1) Start by asking yourself this question: “What is one thing that I could never give up for forty days?” As soon as you have an answer, you have identified a controlling influence on your life. I have asked countless others this question over the years and have been surprised at the variety of responses (alcohol, bread, candy, chocolate, cigarettes, coffee, dessert,  energy drinks, Facebook, fast food, ice cream, the Internet, meat, shopping, soda, television, video games, wine, etc). But there is one constant, everybody can answer it—usually in just a few short seconds.

2) Choose a period of time. Forty days is a good number, but other than the fact that it corresponds directly to the season of Lent, it’s not magical in any way. In fact, if the idea of forty days is too daunting, choose a lower number—just make sure you select a number that is going to exercise your self-control (I’d recommend something over twenty.)

3) Pick a meaningful start and/or end date. If you can find meaning on one of the ends, you’ll find that helpful. There’s a reason Lent leads up Easter. If you don’t want to use Lent specifically, consider a birthday, holiday, or the changing of a season.

4) Tell a friend. You don’t have to explain all the details—though I always appreciate it when readers share my work with others. But the simple act of telling a close friend about your experiment will help provide accountability and strength for your journey.

5) Find meaning in defeat. If you give in at some point during the experiment and succumb to the temptation, don’t lose heart. Make failure your servant by examining its root. And then get back up to try again.

6) If you are spiritual, embrace the season with your entire heart and soul.

7) Reintroduce slowly. Likely, when the season is over, you will reintroduce the influence into your life. Do so slowly, carefully, and intentionally.

Do you practice Lent? If so, what have been your experiences with the season in the past?

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. Janet says

    Wonderful post! Growing up and attending Catholic school in the 50s and 60s, this is a topic that is well known by myself and my friends. Everyone was expected to give something up for 40 days – including children. I now teach Sunday school at my parish and when I mentioned the idea of giving up video games or TV shows for Lent I was met by horrified looks and gasps of “I could never do that!” Oh, yes they could.

    The lack of self control in our society is at the heart of most of our problems. And after years of encouraging the development of children’s ‘self-esteem’, it is now being acknowledged that the ability to control oneself is at the heart of success and a happy life.

    It appears that true self-esteem comes from the exercise of self-control that allows us to focus and achieve our goals – not from being told ‘You’re awesome!’ for no particular reason. That’s something that everyone seemed to know instinctively not that long ago.

  2. says

    Several years ago, a priest suggested to me that ‘giving up’ beer, chocolate, fast food, whatever for 40 days was fine, but there are more important things to consider ‘giving up.’ He offered me suggestions like giving up hatred, prejudice, unkind words, etc., and he suggested giving them up for life. I’ve taken his advice to heart and try to live by it every day. I think his suggestion is worth serious consideration.

    • says

      I certainly agree with the sentiment of giving up hatred, prejudice, greed, etc. for life. One of my points in the article above is that the exercise of giving up beer, chocolate, fast food, or whatever for 40 days actually prepares us better to give up the things that you mentioned. That’s certainly the goal.

  3. Amy says

    I’ve recently left the Catholic Church (after 42 years) and converted to Episcopalianism. One thing that delighted me was learning about a “carbon fast” that our church is focusing on – each day we get an email describing how to cut down on carbon emissions. This to me seemed like a very positive way to approach Lent.

  4. says

    Great post. I am delighted to see that you grew up in South/North Dakota – I’m from a small town in North Dakota myself.

    I have long since left the Catholic Church but have many fond childhood memories of giving things up for Lent. It was exciting in a way. Just spending a few minutes reflecting on the things in my life that have a controlling influence over me is a healthy exercise.

  5. says

    Great post, Joshua. Have always been part of protestant denominations that didn’t emphasize Lent, I’ve only recently begun “giving something up”. This year I am giving up all indulgences and eating simple meals – meals similar to what people living in poverty eat all over the world. I’m going through Chris Seay’s book A Place at the Table which has 40 daily readings to go along with this idea.

  6. says

    Great post! As Jill mentioned above I too am part of a protestant denomination that does not emphasize lent. I didn’t realize the power that the season holds and the “turning back” that it represents. This year I am participating in Blood Water Mission’s “Forty Days of Water” (I am not affiliated in any way), basically giving up any drink except water for the next 40 days. Here is some more info about it.
    Thanks again for the great posts!

  7. says

    Great post. I did not grow up celebrating Lent, but as I entered adulthood it was something I chose to do on occasion, not necessarily every year. One year I gave up Mexican food for Lent, which was a huge challenge for me (a Texan). This year I am giving up going out to eat for Lent. This also should serve to be a big challenge. Just like Jill mentioned, I am reading through Chris Seay’s book “A Place at the Table” during this season. It encourages readers to eat simply (similar to how people in poverty stricken nations eat) for 40 days and then take the money saved and donate it to organizations that serve the poor. I pondered the idea of eating simply, but I was concerned aout eliminating too many good nutrients from my diet, since I am trying to become pregnant, so I decided to give up eating out, which I usually do at least 3 times a week either at lunch or dinner. I think this will take a lot of discipline and will help me to eat out less and cook more after the lenten season is over. I’m looking forward to the challenge and what I will learn from it.

  8. says

    Don’t forget that you get Sundays off for feast day! I find that an encouraging factor for getting through each week for the whole of the Lenten season.

  9. Steve says

    Thanks Josh for the great post. I grew up Protestant, but my wife’s aunt is a Dominican nun, and so I have learned a good deal about the Catholic church, and it’s traditions. I practiced Lent a few years ago, and it was very rewarding. I actually stopped what I gave up completely. This year, instead of giving up something, I am practicing doing something with intention each day. Your post confirmed that what I had planned was also just as constructive as going without. Thanks again.

  10. says

    I just turned my smart phone off and went back to my old phone on Sunday. It is terribly addicting. I was checking it for e-mail and social media stuff all day long. It was like a nervous twitch or something. I stay home all day and for only have few minute breaks between home schooling the kids and … maintaining order. Before the smart phone I could read books a few pages at a time but since the smart phone all those minutes went to ‘checking’ and reading mostly useless stuff on the phone. … I am off now for day 3 and am well into ‘The Art of Non-Confirmity’ by Chris Guillebeau.

    I loved your tweet yesterday as well about not having it all and choosing. It put into words something I have been wanting to write about for a few days. Got it up last night :)

  11. Fiona says

    I’ve never participated in Lent before, and never felt a desire to but this year… I found out I’m intolerant to yeast and milk. My appointment with the nutritionalist happened to be the day before Lent so I’ve taken it as a sign.
    I’m starting my yeast free, milk free diet today the only difference is it may have to be a permanent change… I’ll have to wait and see. I’m pretty sure I’ll experience some serious health benefits but on top of that I agree with the mental and spiritual benefits of these times of ‘change’. I often do ‘spend free months’ where I only buy food and petrol and during September I decided to commit to 3 months of not personally adding sugar to anything.
    I’m really hoping the next 40 days are something I look back on fondly as an important change in my life, because honestly, I’m a bit scared because it’s such a big change.
    Good luck with your Smart phone Free Lent! :)

  12. says

    I grew up in a completely non-religious family, but always yearned for something religious. The idea of Lent really meshed with my inherent need for challenges. Growing up, I observed Lent a few times for fun–I don’t remember what exactly I gave up, but it was probably sweets/desserts/candy. In high school, I challenged myself to not have any desserts/sweets for a whole year. I think I made it 5 months before finally giving in. I’ve also participated for Ramadan, fasting sun up to sun down (no food or even water) for a full month. That was the hardest challenge to date, but was well worth it. I really enjoyed your perspective on the need for challenges in our lives to develop self-restraint and control. Thanks for sharing :)

  13. Sarah says

    Thanks for the inspiration Joshua! I decided to de-activate the Twitter and Facebook updates on my phone, hide the “Friend stream” app and delete FB as a bookmark from my smartphone. I think the world will be just fine for the next 40 days if I don’t keep up on the latest tragedies in the world or the latest drama among friends.

  14. says

    Thank you for your thought provoking post. Everyone should fast from something at least once in their life, it can be a rewarding experience.

  15. says

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you.

    I grew up in a household that was agnostic, so we never observed any kind of Lenten tradition. I have toyed with the idea a few times since I’ve become a Christian, but never followed through. Your post really made me think, though. As I read through your questions, the internet kept coming up in my mind again and again. Alas, the internet is my business (just as some people go to an office to work, I go online to work), and I can’t just shut it off. Well, I suppose I could, but then my income would disappear, and that is not a reality.

    I’m going to think and pray about this over the next few days and see if I can come up with an answer to your question – what can I not live without for the next 40 days? I can actually think of a few things, though my motivation for going without them is more health-based than spirit-based (sugary beverages like pop is the first I thought of). And I know I can live without them, so that doesn’t count, does it?

    I guess I need to give it a little time and get a late start on the fast.

    • Stephanie says

      It’s not that you know you can’t live without them, it’s the actual part of living without them. I know I can live without chocolate, but actually making the choices that will keep me away from it? That’s a different matter entirely.

  16. BV says

    I really enjoyed this post! Asking myself the question about what I can’t live without, and then framing that thing as a “controlling influence” really surprised me. I knew instantly what I had to give up. I don’t wish to name it here, but apart from my mobile phone, it is the one thing that is extremely negative and gobbles up all my time. Being rid of it for a while will be a good thing – and will force me to read more instead!

    Like another commenter above, I once attempted to do ramadan, slightly modifying the times (the morning hours of 6am were correct, but I’d eat earlier, as I was at school.) I managed about 5 days before giving up! I did, however, learn something really interesting – that not only did I focus on food a LOT (and I was thin!) but that not focusing on food during the lunch break, aside from giving one more time, made me feel “fresher” and I was able to think more clearly. Even for those few days, it felt like a cleansing experience.

  17. says

    Great post. I have forwarded it on to inspire friends. Even though I was not brought up Catholic we often gave up things for lent- sugar in our cereal is one that stuck. This year I am giving up alcohol as the thought of it seemed difficult- so I expect some interesting revelations.

  18. Gail says

    Since Jesus fasted for 40 days and we are to be imitators of Christ, I fast during Lent. My fast – refrain from unkind or bossy words to my beloved spouse.

  19. Stephanie says

    For Lent this year, I kept changing my mind on what I was giving up. I’ve learned the lesson–choose a path and stick with it! So I’m going to re-start my Lent, so to speak. Instead of it ending on Easter, I’ll have it end on my birthday at the end of April. Can’t wait to get started!

  20. says

    I have not read all the comments above so this may be a repeat. One thing that helps and I’ve done with our boys is to replace the “bad habit” with something good. So our oldest son, who tends to want to talk about legos a LOT :-) is going to try and give a compliment to someone in the family every time he thinks about saying something about lego guys. We even included our 4 year old this year. He tends to fuss if dinner isn’t what he is hungry for, so we encouraged him to “give up” fussing and instead when we tell him what we’re having, even if he is not happy with the dinner he still should say “Thank you for cooking dinner” to show appreciation for the food that I cooked and God has provided through is dad having a job.

    I realize these are little things compared to what adults may strive toward but my hope is that doing this with our family (we have 5 boys: 9,7,6,4,2) while they are young will help build their character. Many people may roll their eyes and say, “seriously, a 4 year old?!” It is amazing what a 4 year old (or even a 2 year old) can pick up when exposed to things every day….good and bad!! :-)

  21. says

    Thank you for the great thoughts today Joshua! This morning I decided to give up worry and trade it for trust. This morning our car broke down. And I decided to trust. It was actually my fault. And I decided to trust. It cost $684 to get it fixed. And I decided to trust.

    And guess what? My husband gave me grace, and brought me a special chocolate bar when he came home from work. And we had “Car savings” that was almost exactly the same amount as the cost to fix it. And the chocolate was delicious…

    Trusting saved me a lot of stress today, and needless trouble. Jesus had it right when he said ” Do not worry about tomorrow…” :)

  22. susan says

    I have decided to give/donate everyday, 5 items from my home for the next 40 days. By the 40th. day I will be free from 200 things I didn’t really need. Only the first day and it was harder than I thought. But I know I can do it!

  23. Kelley says

    Great ideas. I’ve put this off for a few days, thinking I would have time to figure something out for lent, but here it is, day one, and I have no plan. Last year I gave up meat. It was tough because I cook the meals and basically, my family gave up meat and although they didn’t complain, they were glad when it was over. I think another food focused Lent is probably not fair at this point, since we try very hard to eat together as often as possible and our kids are older teens, playing several sports. At the very least, you have all given me food for thought.

  24. says

    My husband gave me grace, and brought me a special chocolate bar when he came home from work. And we had “Car savings” that was almost exactly the same amount as the cost to fix it. And the chocolate was delicious…

  25. says

    since we try very hard to eat together as often as possible and our kids are older teens, playing several sports. At the very least, you have all given me food for thought.

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