We recognize Lent, the forty days before Easter Sunday, as a sort of parallel to the time Jesus spent in the wilderness.
During Lent, many of us decide to deny ourselves something important as a sort of test. We walk around comparing our sacrifice to others, feeling a bit smug for our herculean efforts while, at the same time, feeling sad and pitiful for our loss of treats or Twitter.
But if our Lenten season is truly a mirror of what Jesus did, it may be that we are really missing something about Jesus and His focus.
During Lent, we see our self-denial as a form of discipline. Avoiding chocolate, caffeine, movies, social media, or bad language can definitely tax a person's resolve. The ease with which we purchase and consume, or turn on and enjoy is quite remarkable. Our pantries are full, our devices are charged and full of apps and our habits are not easily broken.
But perhaps we misunderstand the true value of this kind of discipline. We think of it as a form of punishment for prior short-comings. We approach the practice of "giving something up for Lent" as some sort of admission of guilt and impose a rigid 40-day sentence on ourselves.
But Jesus, the Savior we hope to emulate, was free from any form of guilt or shame or sin. He had absolutely no need to spend any time at all punishing himself for transgressions. He had none.
Instead, Jesus spent time in the wilderness to better prepare Himself for the next difficult season of His life. While the evil one was attempting to keep Him distracted with temptations and lies, Jesus looked to His Father for sustenance and strength.
So, when we consider His sacrifice and denial during this holy season, we discover a different definition for discipline. Consider the first time at the gym after years of inactivity and poor diet. Our bodies ache and we cannot do what we could years ago. Although the task seems impossible, we start slowly and develop habits of exercise and healthy eating. We discipline ourselves to live a better life. Not a life of regret and pain.
It is not punishment. If it were, the gyms would be empty and we would be suffering for our excesses with little hope for change.
The reason we exercise with diligence and self-discipline is to focus on the prize of strong bodies and good health. We give up what is easy and fast to achieve what is lasting.
The same is true during Lent. If we want to be like Jesus, we are not fixated on what is wrong with us. We are practicing spiritual disciplines that will bring us closer to Him and life of spiritual health.
Perhaps denying ourselves candy and junk food gives us a sense of spiritual success. And there are devoted Christians across the world who consider these 40 days as a way to get back to the basics of the Christian life - extending and deepening prayer, digging deeper into God's word and the life of Jesus, and intentionally spending time doing regular things but with a spiritual frame of mind.
But perhaps it's time that we reconsider the why's? of "giving something up for Lent."
Instead of focusing on the denial and pride of success, let's focus on Jesus, the one and only perfect Son of God. Let's be like Him, not full of regret but full of hope for the future.
With gratitude to Katelyn Beaty for her wise words and honesty in this article.