I did not grow up with the practice of Lent.
I spent most of my life as a Protestant, my family having left the Catholic Church shortly after I made my First Communion. The message that I got about Lent and other penitential practices that Catholics did was that they were trying to earn their way into heaven. We didn’t “need” that, we Protestants. We knew that Jesus’ sacrifice was the only sacrifice that was needed – once and for all – and our life could be free and easy as a result of his finished work.
Only life isn’t easy, is it?
Life is full of sorrows and sufferings, and if you haven’t experienced this aspect of life yet, you only need to wait a bit longer. It’s coming.
Our culture is not generally good at suffering. We live in a time of relative peace and prosperity. The vast majority of us enjoy comforts that nobles and kings of a few centuries ago could only have dreamed about. Nevermind heat and toilets – what about streaming television, grocery pick-up, and online shopping? Instant gratification is the new normal.
But is this a good thing?
Those practices of self-denial I mentioned above, which used to be a much larger part of the Christian life, have largely fallen by the wayside. Temperance, simplicity, chastity, and fasting have been replaced with self-indulgence. Those things were unnecessary now, I thought. But there was not much about my life as a Protestant that prepared me for trials and suffering. “Everything is permissible,” the Corinthians believed, but St. Paul reminds them, “not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 10:23) It seemed to me that the “freedom” that we had to ignore the penitential rules that Catholics practiced may not have been beneficial.
So how does Lent help us with suffering?
Self-denial is a muscle that needs to be strengthened, and Lent is our gym.
We know that we will face trouble and persecution in this world. Our Lord told us this. (John 16:33) But this world is not our home. All that we do here on earth is meant to bring glory to God so that we may enjoy life with him in our permanent home – heaven. We are not here to live a life of comfort and ease. Lent reminds us of this and prepares us to face more difficult sufferings by helping us to die to ourselves.
Life is like a race, St. Paul said.
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Just as a runner prepares for a race with practice, so Lent gives us an opportunity to practice suffering. As a runner subjects his body to the strain of pushing himself beyond what is comfortable in order to build up his endurance, so we practice self-denial even when it is unpleasant so that we may build up our perseverance for the sufferings of this life. And when real danger comes, it will be the runner who has been training who will better be able to outrun his foe. Likewise, we who have practiced some self-denial of our own choosing will be better prepared to lay down our comfort, our possessions, our relationships, our very lives for Christ if necessary, for the prize of eternity. (Matthew 19:29)
If you are new to the practice of Lent, don’t worry. It’s okay if you don’t do it perfectly. When I returned to the Catholic faith, there were many years that I would be halfway into a ham sandwich before I realized it was Ash Wednesday and we were not supposed to eat meat. It did not come naturally to me and I did not have a plan.
Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter, with the option to relax our fasts on Sundays. It lasts for 40 days, just as Christ spent 40 days in the desert after his baptism in preparation for what lay before him. There are three elements to Lent that we practice: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Let’s look at some ways we can incorporate these elements into our daily lives during this period so that we may strengthen our self-denial muscles.
If you don’t already have a habit of daily prayer, now is a good time to start! Try to carve out a few minutes at the start of your day to thank God for all that you have and to ask for his help. Sometimes the demands of our day can overwhelm us. We can feel that we are spread too thin and unable to manage all that we need to do with a limited budget, limited time, and limited energy. But we do not have to do it alone! God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:19) Recognize that you are weak. Take time each morning to offer your smallness to him. Ask him what you can do to best serve him. Offer him yourself and ask him to use you for his glory. Spending time in his presence in this way humbles us and reminds us that we are not God. This is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10)
If you do currently pray, consider adding in some more prayer time, asking other people how you might intercede for them, or praying for our church leaders, government leaders, and people who are most in need of God’s mercy.
True fasting from food, as it was originally intended, has numerous health and spiritual benefits. If you are interested in a plan to incorporate this type of fasting into your Lenten practice, I highly recommend a book called Eat, Fast, Feast by Jay Richards. There is no question fasting is difficult; it is a self-denial that has some accompanying physical discomfort. But there is a direct correlation between fasting and spiritual warfare. (Matthew 17:21) Fasting is a practice of subjecting our flesh to our will and not giving over to our fleshly desires. This is something that has benefits in so many areas of our lives, from enduring ridicule for our faith to withstanding sexual temptations. The devil hates when we deny ourselves.
During Lent, Catholics are currently required to fast on only two days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these days, only one full meal is allowed, with the option to also have two very small meals that do not, together, make a full meal. Additionally, we refrain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. This may sound difficult, but the book I mentioned above lays out a six-week plan to follow that transitions from not fasting at all to being able to go several days without food. It is a helpful guide since it is just about as long as Lent. I have found fasting to be an incredibly strong weapon against other temptations in my own life.
If you are unable to fast from food, consider fasting from something else that you enjoy – television, shopping, alcohol, social media. These things bring temporary comfort, but not lasting joy. Taking a break from them reminds us of this fact.
In essence, almsgiving is helping others. After loving God, the second greatest commandment is loving others. We do this when we help them. Make a meal for someone who is sick, volunteer at a local soup kitchen, donate to a crisis pregnancy center, send an encouraging note to someone who is struggling. Sometimes we are so absorbed with our own lives that we fail to see the needs of those around us. It takes practice to see ways that we can practically help others, but meeting people’s physical needs is how Jesus showed that he was capable of meeting their spiritual needs. We are the hands and feet of Jesus on earth right now; helping others out of love is a way of pointing them to the love of God.
Consider these words of St. Paul to the Hebrews:
“We will show mercy to the poor and not miss an opportunity to do acts of kindness for others, for these are the true sacrifices that delight God’s heart.” (Hebrews 13:16)
Lent is a gift to us.
When we take advantage of the opportunities that Lent provides us to practice self-denial, we are disciplining and training ourselves to be prepared to face the difficulties of this life. In this way, we are more prepared to “count it all joy” when we face trials, knowing that the testing of our faith is what develops perseverance. (James 1:2) It is the deep, eternal joy – like the joy set before Christ that allowed him to endure the cross – that enables us to endure the suffering that we do in this life. Dying to ourselves means throwing off the temporary comforts that the world offers us so that we can live more fully for Christ.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize. Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable. Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like I am beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Have you found Lent to be a helpful practice in your life?