I’m not Catholic, so why should I give something up for Lent? Ok, so before you tune me out, let’s talk about this. Although I now understand the Lenten practice of giving something up is not solely a Catholic observance, growing up, it’s the only denomination I associated it with because, quite frankly, my Catholic friends seemed to be the only ones doing it.
Raised in the Baptist church, where the Lenten season was not typically highlighted (although in recent years, that has changed), Lent was not something I understood aside from what I saw or heard: smudges on foreheads, fish on Fridays, and pronouncements of “This is what I’m giving up for Lent.”
So I think it’s safe to say that up until a few years ago, the question of “why” easily could have been my response to Lent and its season of sacrifice and fasting.
While I don’t remember what piqued my interest in Lent or initially prompted me to give something up, I am drawn to the spirit of the season and the spiritual preparation it’s intended to promote.
What is Lent & Why Is It Celebrated?
Before you consider giving something up for Lent, though, I think it’s important first to understand the “what” and “why.” Lent encompasses the 40 days that begin with Ash Wednesday and end on the Saturday before Easter. It’s meant to serve as a time of preparation and personal reflection in advance of the celebration of Good Friday and Easter.
If you take the time to count, you’ll soon discover that more than 40 days fall between those two dates. And that’s because Sundays aren’t included in the 40 days. Instead, Sundays during the Lenten season are intended to be weekly celebrations of the Resurrection.
To learn why Lent and its sacrificial practice of fasting are celebrated, we have to take a deeper dive. And what I learned is that it has interesting historical roots. As noted in Lent for Baptists by Dr. Jim Denison:
“Lenten observance began very early, as both Irenaeus (died A.D. 202) and Tertullian (died A.D. 225) refer to it. It was originally very brief, a 40-hour fast, growing eventually to a week. By A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea recognized 40 days of Lent. In early centuries, Lent was observed with a strict fast. Only one meal a day was allowed, taken toward evening. Meat, fish, eggs and milk products were forbidden.”
However, over time, even in the Catholic tradition, these rules have loosened and morphed into something that goes well beyond just a physical fast. While I can’t really speak to the changing practices of Lent in other Christian denominations, the biggest change I’ve noticed in my Baptist church is that the Lenten season now is actually a thing.
While giving something up for Lent isn’t necessarily the focus, my church does mark the season as a time of remembrance and spiritual preparation for the sacrifice of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter.
When is Lent 2023?
To understand when lent begins and ends in any given year, you first have to understand how the date for Easter is determined. And Easter, as you know, is a floating holiday. Have you ever wondered why that is? Well, it all has to do with timing.
Easter — as decided by the Council of Nicaea in the 4th Century — is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, known as the Paschal Moon, after the vernal (or spring) equinox. For that reason, Easter Sunday can occur as early as mid-March or as late as mid-April.
Therefore, the lenten season is set by working backward from Easter so that Ash Wednesday always falls on the seventh Wednesday prior to Easter.
In 2022, the Lenten season will begin on Wednesday, February 22, and run through Saturday, April 8.
What Are the Significant Days of Lent?
The Lenten season is marked by a series of significant days that all begin with Ash Wednesday. Here are the highlights from beginning to end:
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is designed to “[focus] the Christian’s heart on repentance and prayer, usually through personal and communal confession” (Christianity.com). It begins the 40 days of fasting from whatever it is you’ve prayerfully chosen to give up for Lent.
This also is the day you probably recall seeing people with crosses smudged across their foreheads, which is “a sign of mourning over the death which sin brings into the world” (BaptistNews.com). “The ashes symbolize our grief for the things we’ve done wrong and the resulting division of imperfect people from a perfect God” (cru.org).
Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter, begins Holy Week. It corresponds to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered the city with the praise and adoration of the people (Matthew 21:1-11). It’s a significant fulfillment of prophecy:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – Zechariah 9:9
It takes its name from the palm branches that the people were waving as Jesus entered the city. “The palm branch represented goodness and victory and was symbolic of the final victory He would soon fulfill over death” (“What is Palm Sunday?, Crosswalk.com).
Maundy Thursday corresponds to the Thursday before Easter and the day Jesus is believed to have shared a final Passover with his disciples before his crucifixion and resurrection.
The word “maundy” means “command,” shortened from the Latin word “mandatum” (You can read more about this in the article, “What Is Mandy Thursday?” at Christianity.com).
So Maundy Thursday serves as a point of remembrance and reminder of Jesus’ command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34)
Good Friday marks the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Given the horrifying realities of crucifixion, the word “good” seems like the wrong word to use, don’t you think? However, while it appears there is some debate as to the actual origin of the word choice, Justin Holcomb, in his article, “What’s So Good about Good Friday?” notes that “in German, for example, the day is called Karfreitag, or ‘Sorrowful Friday.’ In English, in fact, the origin of the term ‘Good’ is debated: some believe it developed from an older name, ‘God’s Friday.’”
Regardless of the why, though, it definitely is a day for believers to celebrate because, without Jesus’ final sacrifice on the cross, we would be trapped in our sin. Jesus willingly went to the cross. He willingly surrendered himself to public shame, mockery, excruciating pain, and death (Matthew 26:14-27:66). And he did all of it out of his unshakeable love for humanity.
When I think about giving something up for Lent, my small sacrifices pale in comparison to the one Jesus gave for me, and it seems, to me, the very least I can do. When I struggle to remain committed to a lenten fast — whatever it is I’m giving up — I can find the strength to persist with the solemn reminder of Christ’s surrender. He didn’t have to die. In his divinity, he could have rescued himself from the pain. Yet, he didn’t, and because of his death and ultimate resurrection, all who believe in him will have eternal life (John 3:16).
So in the end, yes, I suppose the word “good” works just fine because Jesus’ death on the cross set in motion God’s divine plan of rescue for all of mankind.
What Does the Bible Say About Lent?
So what does the Bible say about Lent? Well, the answer is nothing. However, the Bible often speaks about fasting — one of the hallmarks of the Lenten period — as an important spiritual discipline and an example set by Christ during his time here on earth. For example:
- Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness prior to beginning his earthly ministry (Matthew 4: 1-11); thus, giving something up during Lent helps us identify with Christ and is a tangible reminder of his sacrifice.
- In the Bible, Jesus gives instruction for fasting, not for “if” we fast but rather “when” we fast (Matthew 6:16-17).
But it’s also the 40 days that make the tradition so rich. While there is no mention of Lent, we see numerous references throughout the Bible to the number forty, often (but not always) in relation to trial or testing. Below are just a few examples:
- Noah and the flood: “And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:12).
- Moses on Mount Sinai (twice): “Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:18 and Exodus 34:1-28).
- Reporting on the Promised Land: “At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land” (Numbers 13:25).
- Israelites’ Wilderness wanderings: “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure (Numbers 14:34)….And the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone (Numbers 32:13)….[but] These forty years the LORD your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing” (Deuteronomy 2:7).
- Saul, David and Solomon each ruled for forty years.
- Elijah escape into the wilderness: “And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8).
- Jesus returned to earth for forty days following his resurrection: “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
So while the Bible gives no specific direction for Lent, I see a benefit to believers in marking the 40 days before Easter with special significance. Just as we look joyfully toward Jesus’ birth in the season of Advent, Lent provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge and remember the sacrifice before celebrating his resurrection.
What Should I Give Up for Lent?
So that’s the big question: If I give something up for Lent, what should it be? Ultimately, that question is between you and God. As with all fasting, it should be personal and have a purpose. And quite frankly, I think it needs to be something that will be a challenge, a sacrifice.
For instance, many people give up soft drinks for Lent. But the only time I really ever have a soft drink is when I’m at the movies (popcorn and a Coke Zero: my Pavlovian response to movie-going!), so giving up soft drinks wouldn’t really be a struggle for me.
However, if we start talking sugar, well, now, the challenge is real. The first time I ever gave something up for lent I chose desserts. It was hard. It also left me with the question, “Is a muffin bread or dessert?” I’m almost 100% certain I assigned it to the bread category:)
Here are some of the more popular things people give up during Lent:
We all know sugar is highly addictive and terrible for us, and it can be a hard one to give up, particularly if your sugar fast includes all forms of sugar and not just sweets. It’s everywhere, y’all!
Whether you choose to go all-in, Whole 30-style or narrow your scope to bakery-type items, make that decision first in prayer. An excellent resource you might want to consider is Wendy Speake’s book, “The 40-Day Sugar Fast: Where Physical Detox Meets Spiritual Transformation.”
Whether that’s your morning latte or a daily soft drink habit, maybe now is a good time to skip the caffeine. If you relinquish a $5/day coffee habit, you’ll have $200 extra dollars saved by the end of Lent to either give as a gift to your church or charity.
If you think to yourself, “I don’t think I could go 40 days without a drink,” then perhaps this is the exact sacrifice you need to make. As with many cravings, it will take daily surrender and prayer, which is exactly the point.
Perhaps it’s time to give Netflix a break and find different, maybe more productive, ways to while away your free time.
5. Social Media
Isn’t it interesting how social media has become so intertwined into our daily routines? While there are positive things about many of the social platforms, there is no denying that it can quickly become a problem.
I’ve been trying to curb my time on social media, so this one might be my area of surrender during Lent this year. Not sure yet. However, if that is the path I take, then I plan to use another one of Wendy Speake’s books, “The 40-Day Social Media Fast: Exchange Your Online Distractions for Real-Life Devotion.”
For 40 days, stick to the essentials. I saw a comment that said, “Store up your treasures in Heaven, not your closet.” Point taken.
From giving up clutter and complaining to adding in exercise or time spent in prayer, truly, the options are endless. If you’d like some additional ideas, Equipping Godly Women has a list of 50 ideas of things to give up for Lent you might enjoy checking out.
The point is this: consider an area of your life that needs refining, and then place that challenge squarely in the loving hands of Jesus. Go to him daily, asking the Spirit to strengthen you in times of weakness.
Giving something up for Lent should be hard. It should stretch you and challenge you and hopefully create daily reminders of your need for a Savior.
Bible Verses for Lent
Because the Lenten season is meant to remind us of Christ’s love and sacrifice, the monthly Bible reading plan for March was written specifically with that in mind. You can find a printable copy of that Bible reading plan here: A Season of Sacrifice.
Below are a few Bible verses pulled from that plan to encourage you:
“’Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!”
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”
1 Peter 5:6
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,”
Note: Verses above from the English Standard Version (ESV) translation.
Blessings to you this Lenten season. Choosing to give something up for Lent really should not be the primary emphasis. It’s not mandatory. But I encourage you not to let Lent pass by without remembrance. Whatever you do, let the 40 days before Easter Sunday be marked with significance.