Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Self-Denial

I have pretty high hopes for Lent every year. “This is the year I’ll finally be self-disciplined!” Or, “I will discover a new depth to my prayer life by…praying…all the time.” (Replace praying with “giving up this luxury” or “acting with mercy,” it changes from year to year.)

I’ve been reminded in several places by friends in the online community that Lent is not a behavior modification program. In other words, we don’t do Lenten disciplines in order to become better people. I think of how Richard Foster describes a faulty spiritual practice as one which exerts a kind of superhuman effort to do the things that God finds pleasing. “Righteousness Direct,” if you will. It usually doesn’t work–and if it does, its chief result isn’t holiness but arrogance.

But Lenten discipline does go to work on us. Just not usually in the way we think about it. If our fasting means our stomach growls or mouth dries up, then we repeat to ourselves, “God alone fulfills all my hunger” and “I drink up Christ and will never thirst again.” It’s not very good as replacement therapy, actually. But it does refocus us away from our constant consumption and back to God’s abundance. A practice of self-denial and the virtue of simplicity are really two sides of the same coin.

And I think that would result in a change in our behaviors.  But not at a surface level where we constantly revolt and our bodies “wage war” with our intentions. Instead, we begin to adopt a different posture in our core, which has a profound effect on our behavior.

I’m thinking less and less of trying to innovate on my own something new to give up each year. Instead, I’m dropping back into the patterns which have stood the test of time:

prayer at fixed hours of the day
paying attention to those in need with whom I come into contact day by day
dedicated study (I’m starting, as I usually do, with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s annual Lent book, and then go on from there)

Practicing these during Lent and letting them speak into my life means that I’m not seeking to manipulate either God or myself into changing specific things about my behavior. Instead, I’m simply trying to do things that will allow God to work with me more fully–putting me deliberately in God’s path so God can’t help but trip over me. We’ll see what comes next…

What are you doing for Lent? Giving something up, taking something on, or something else entirely?
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About expatminister

Aren't we what we repeatedly love? My wife, being GeekDad to the 4 superkids, United Methodist pastoring, Texas, science fiction and other nerdy pursuits, words (speaking, listening, writing, reading), Britain, music, camping, tech, baseball, practicing theology. Jesus. Coffee.


  1. I joined an open facebook group called “Give it Away for Lent” which challenges us to give away 40 things during the season and to pray for the people that will receive the items.
    I’m also going to journal prayer daily, following along with Rev. Rachel Hackenburg’s daily prompts.

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