Lenten fasting. (It’s optional, you know.)

Lent is the English term for the 40-day period before Easter in which Christians fast, abstain, and otherwise practice self-control. (Assuming we practice such things at all.) In Latin it’s called quadragesima and in Greek it’s σαρακοστή/sarakostí, short for τεσσαρκοστή/tessarkostí—both of which mean “fortieth,” ’cause 40 days.

It starts Ash Wednesday, which isn’t 40 precise days before Easter; it’s 46. That’s because the six Sundays before Easter aren’t included. You don’t fast on feast days, and Sabbath is a feast day; it’s when we take a weekly break from our Lenten fasts. Many Christians don’t realize this, and wind up fasting Sundays too—since they’ve got that abstention momentum going anyway.

And for eastern Christians, Lent begins the week before Ash Wednesday, on Clean Monday. Partly because they don’t skip Sundays, and fast that day too; and partly ’cause their Lenten fast consists of the 40 days before Holy Week. Then they have a whole different fast for that week.

But no matter how you arrange it, all the fasting is finished by Easter.

Just as Jesus went without food 40 days in the wilderness, we go without… well, something. The first Christians who practiced Lent likely went all hardcore, and went without food and water. And after this practice gravely injured or killed enough of ’em, the early Christians decided maybe it’s wiser to stick to bread and water, or a vegan diet. Or, as American Catholics practice it nowadays, go without meat on Friday and Saturday. (Though for various iffy reasons, fish is considered an exception.)

Protestant custom is usually to cut back to two meals a day, then give up one extra something. Abstaining from the one thing has leaked back into popular culture and Catholicism, so now most pagans and many Christians think Lent only consists of giving up the one thing. Preferably something difficult: Giving up coffee or alcohol, chocolate or carbs, watching sports or playing video games, or anything we originally tried to give up for New Year and failed at.

Whenever I’m asked what I’m doing without for Lent, I tend to joke, “I’m giving up fruits and vegetables. Nothing but coffee and Goldfish crackers till Easter.” The kids like to joke, “I’ll give up smoking,” since they already don’t smoke. (They might vape though.)

But all joking aside, abstaining from one thing isn’t a bad custom. And we’re not giving it up for Lent; properly we’re giving it up for Jesus.

So once we recognize this, we need to ask ourselves: Exactly how does this benefit Jesus? How will it grow our relationship with him? Does it grow our relationship with him?—are we abstaining because this is something we want, or he wants? Didja bother to ask him what he actually wants us to do without?

That’s most of the reason Christians pick something difficult to abstain from. It’s a reminder Jesus is infinitely more important than our favorite things. Really he should be our favorite thing, and during Lent that’s what he oughta become, in a far more obvious way than usual. And after Lent, oughta remain.

For this reason we shouldn’t just pick something we oughta give up anyway. If you figure, “I really oughta give up adultery for Lent”: Well duh. And you oughta give up adultery period. Don’t figure you’ll quit shoplifting, or verbally abusing people, or smacking your kids around… but only till Easter. Don’t save obeying God till Lent. Nor start sinning again once it’s Easter! Just stop.

Put some wisdom into your choice. The first time I abstained for Lent, I picked coffee. I love coffee. Makes sense to pick something which might have enough of a hold on me to tempt me. Problem is, when I have my coffee first thing in the morning, the first words out of my mouth are, “Thank you Jesus for coffee”—I’m in a thanksgiving mood. From there, I can go on to prayer, devotions, and other ways of honoring him. But when I don’t have that coffee, it takes longer to get into that mood. No, I’m not saying I need coffee to worship Jesus; that’s stupid. But dropping coffee doesn’t help. (And lest you’re worried about my caffeine addiction, I usually drink decaf. Not just for Lent.)

Don’t pick a Lenten fast which’ll irritate others, or cause them hardship. I unthinkingly did this myself one year: I went without meat. In itself it’s not a bad thing… but I attended a party, was given the duty of ordering pizza, and selfishly only thought of my fast: I ordered nothing but vegetable and cheese pizzas. The other folks in the party of course wanted meat. They didn’t appreciate how I’d convenienced myself but inconvenienced them: I was behaving exactly like one of those self-righteous vegans who impose their consciences on everyone else. Lots of fasting Christians do likewise: If the friends wanna go out to eat, they respond, “Not that restaurant; I’m fasting,” and demand all their friends accommodate their devotion. That’s actually selfishness disguised as devotion. Don’t do that.

My students used to joke, “I’ll give up bathing.” (Of course. They’re kids.) But they really, really needed to bathe. They smelled enough like foot cheese as it was. And lest you get any ideas, don’t you give up bathing. Fasting is supposed to be invisible. Mt 6.16-18 Plus it’s common courtesy to not outrage our neighbor’s noses for no good reason.

Putting something down… and taking something up.

Most people talk about giving something up for Lent. Not enough of us talk about practicing something new for Lent. ’Cause when we fast, we’re meant to pray instead of eat. So when you give up, say, caffeine for Lent, you’re meant to pray instead of drink. Do a little something extra for Jesus.

Do what? Up to you. Y’might block off a little extra time for prayer or bible-reading. Might join a prayer or study group. Might volunteer for charity work, or some other kind of regular Christian activity. Sometimes Christians have the goal of making this a regular practice in their lives, even beyond Lent. More often it’s just till Easter: If you gave up reading novels to read the bible, you oughta be finished with the bible by Easter, so back to the novels. Nothing wrong with that. Well, depending on the novels.

I’ve done special bible studies during Lent in previous years. Or extra prayer meetings, extra offerings and charitable donations, extra work directly with the needy; more so than usual. Some churches do something special during this time; get involved in it. If Lent is about extra focus on Jesus, we need to do more than passively focus on him by not doing something. We should act.

Opting out.

Yes, like all fasting, Lent is optional. God never mandated fasting in the scriptures: They’re human traditions and practices, invented by us Christians, like Christmas and Easter. We have plenty of freedom when it comes to how we observe ’em. That’s why customs vary from nation to nation, church to church, house to house.

True, some churches won’t leave it up to you. They’re definitely doing Lent, and expect you to join in. Roman Catholics, fr’instance: They’re really big on worshiping God together, corporately, in unity, as a group. Local bishops can determine exceptions, but in general if you’re a member of their church, you’re gonna do as your church does. If not, why are you even Catholic?

This is where Lent can turn into a sin: If anyone promises to do something, God holds us to our promises, especially when we swear to him we’ll do it. So if I join a church, I’ve obligated myself to participate in the life of that church. If I can’t do that, they need to be okay with it… or I need to find another church.

So when Catholics claim they’re observing Lent, but insist on doing it their own way instead of in a way their church approves of, they’re harming their relationship with their church. They’re violating any promises they made to their church. They’re often hiding their non-participation from others, yet pretending they’re fasting right along with everyone else. Yep, it’s hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is fraud, and fraud is sin.

You might have totally valid objections to the way your church does Lent. They might be too legalistic. Or you have health problems. Or your job gets in the way. Or, like every other Catholic-in-name-only on St. Patrick’s Day, you wanna get plowed on green Guinness. But you need to work these issues out with your church. Don’t just break their rules and your promises, and claim it’s freedom in Christ. Freedom in Christ isn’t freedom to sin. Ju 4

Are they too legalistic? Maybe they don’t realize it. Someone got overzealous, and didn’t know they were creating hardship. Hey, it’s not always because someone’s on a power trip. But even if it is a tinhorn dictator of a pastor trying to make everyone confirm, work this out. ’Cause if that’s the case, you really shouldn’t be at that church. And if it’s you, that needs to be dealt with too.

As for those Christians who don’t just skip Lent, but openly dismiss fasting in general, object to Christians who fast, and mock Lent in particular: This is exactly the sort of thing Paul wrote the Romans about.

Romans 14.5 KWL
5 One distinguishes day from day; one determines every day the same.
Each to their own. Make up your own mind!
6 One who thinks so about a day, thinks it for the Master’s sake.
Those who eat, eat for the Master’s sake: They give thanks to God.
Those who don’t eat, don’t eat, and give thanks to God.
7 None of us lives for ourselves, dies for ourselves:
8 We live for the Master when we live; we die for the Master when we die.
So, both when we live and when we die, we’re of the Master.
9 This is why Christ died and lived: He can be Master over the dead and living.
10 Why criticize your fellow Christian? Why ridicule your fellow Christian?
Everyone will stand at God’s judgment, 11 for it’s written,
“I live,” says the Lord, “so every knee will bend to me.
Every tongue will acknowledge God.” Is 45.23
12 So each of us will give a word about ourselves to God13 so we ought no longer criticize one another.
Instead, criticize this more: Putting an obstacle or offenses before fellow Christians.

Lent, practiced correctly, helps us Christians grow closer to Jesus. Ridicule (unless it’s to point out a legitimate flaw in our thinking) doesn’t help. Either do it or don’t, but don’t slam the people who are making an honest effort. Yeah, there are people who are only going through the motions to look good, and that’s all the reward they’ll get, Mt 6.1-6 because that’s really all the reward they want. But a lot of us are trying to grow our relationships with God by putting aside irrelevant things like food, drink, and entertainment.

And it just makes sense to do it before Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead and revealed to us he really has defeated sin and death. That’s why, when Easter comes and we stop fasting, we can celebrate his victory all the more.