For Lent, I'm giving up the idea of giving up something for Lent. There are some good reasons to do it, but I can think of a few reasons not to.
1. It's not the Self-Denial Olympics. If the point of giving up something for Lent is nothing more than self-congratulation for feats of abstinence, I'm not interested. Fasting, in centuries of monastic practice, is only worthwhile as far as it increases your spiritual focus, your meditation, your awareness of utter dependence on God. In our diet-happy culture, simply avoiding something is itself is an accomplishment, a triumph of willpower and demonstration of self-control that, ironically, gives you a higher, not a lower, view of yourself. "The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself," said C.S. Lewis in his timeless sermon "The Weight of Glory." "We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ." Which brings me to #2.
2. Chocolate Ain't a Cross. I have friends giving up chocolate, or alcohol, or TV, or ice cream, for Lent. I admire their sacrifices. But those are still pretty trivial sacrifices. I'd be more impressed if people gave up not a minor indulgence but a supposed non-negotiable of modern life. Driving. E-mail. Mirrors. Consumer goods produced more than 100 miles from your house.
That would impress me. But I still don't think it would impress God. "Take up your cross and follow me." It's a call to complete self-emptying.
3. We're not trying to beat Christ at his own game. Sometimes I wonder if giving up something for Lent comes out of a twinge of guilt about Jesus' suffering--"Jesus went through so much pain for me, the least I can do in return is keep my hand out of the cookie jar for a month." First, Christ endured hell precisely so that we don't have to (not that a lack of cookies is hell; see #2 above). He emptied himself in order to invite us to a life of abundance. Not self-indulgence. Not indifference. Not hoarding. But abundance. A life of fasting and feasting.
4. Fuzzy Math, Part 1: 40 does not equal 46. A pastor pointed out in passing last year that Lent is not actually 40 days, but 46. To get to 40, you have to subtract the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Why? Because Sunday is always a day of Resurrection, a "mini-Easter." Our jubilance about Jesus' defeat of death interrupts even our somberness in a season dedicated to his suffering.
That was brand new to me. But I love it; I love Easter's persistence in piercing our gloom. Do Lenten self-deniers know this quirk of the church calendar, and do they, accordingly, let the chocolate flow on those six Sundays?
5. Fuzzy Math, Part 2: One does not equal 40. In his stirring new book Surprised By Hope, N.T. Wright says, "I regard it as absurd and unjustifiable that we should spend forty days keeping Lent, pondering what it means, preaching about self-denial, being at least a little gloomy ... and then, after [Holy Week], we have a single day of celebration."
Easter, Wright points out, is a whole season, 40 whole days of its own before Ascension Day, not "simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom," as he puts it. So after fasting for 40 days (give or take; see #4 above), how will we feast for 40 days? Chocolate cake for dessert every night? 40 bottles of wine? Or would that would be as trivial as giving them up? No matter what, we have to let Easter be a whole season--a whole year, really--a feast that's as good as the fast.