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 never a season that 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 me 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 that 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 had 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 that 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.
Starting today, I have chosen to give up my smart phone capabilities for the next 40 days leading up to Easter on April 8. Over the recent years, I have felt an unhealthy addiction to my cell phone develop in my life. After all, it is one thing to use a phone for calls and text messaging (which my job requires), but it is something completely different when its features (social networking, internet browsing, weather, sports scores, games) constantly compete for my attention. It is time to push it aside, to break the addiction, and to analyze the benefits of living without it. I still plan to social network (Twitter / Facebook), but plan to do so on a more limited basis than before and from a computer screen, not a cell phone.