Years ago, as Lent approached, I asked a trusted spiritual counselor what he was going to give up. He gave me a sly grin and said, “I’m giving up giving things up for Lent.”
He was no spiritual sloth. Looking back, I imagine he was probably trying to correct my overzealous understanding of Lent as a time to flex my spiritual muscles and hone my ascetic self-denial to a razor-sharp edge.
For (too) many years I had a no pain, no gain, “if it hurts, it’s holy” understanding of spirituality. For me, faith was pretty much the same thing as moral willpower. So when Lent came around, I was eager for the chance to gird up my loins, deprive myself, and grit my teeth for 40 days.
With this kind of mindset, I suppose it was no coincidence that I was also a raging environmentalist. After all, if I liked the deprivations of Lent so much, why not deny myself creature comforts year-round, in the name of saving the Earth?
Middle age, raising children, and some spiritual maturing have helped me understand that such a gung-ho approach to Lent and environmentalism was as much ego as it was youthful, high-minded idealism. But I don’t think realizing that means I should simply “give up giving things up.” We follow a savior who, out of love, gave his very life for others. And we live on a planet that cannot sustain seven billion people if everyone consumes like the average American; many of us will have to live more simply so others can simply live.
But how do we give things up in a way that’s spiritually fruitful, without being dour and resentful, and not inflating our own ego with a martyr complex? I can think of three ways.
First, become self-aware. Take a hard look at your own motivations—not judging them, but just paying careful attention to why you do what you do.
Second, practice gratitude. The more grateful you are for the blessings in your life, the easier it is to make sacrifices.
Finally, cultivate compassion. Acting out of empathy and concern for others is the most life-giving motivation of all. This kind of love is what moved Jesus to heal the sick and to carry his cross to Golgotha. And it’s what Lenten sacrifice is really all about.