This article written by Rev. Mark Buetow originally appeared on Higher Things: Dare to be Lutheran
The season of Lent is usually associated with "giving something up", or not eating meat on Fridays. One year I gave up television for Lent. I figured I spent too much time just sitting around and channel surfing. So I figured I would deny myself that pleasure (and waste of time) and use that time for better things...like surfing the web! Then I went to school with my daughters one day. One of their fellow kindergartners asked me, "Pastor why did you ground yourself from TV?" Good question! Why did I give up something for Lent? (With the writers' strike, giving up TV this year wouldn't really be giving up much, would it?) Should you give something up for Lent? If so, why? What should you give up? What about fasting? Let’s answer these questions in a way that points us to Jesus and the the forgiveness of sins!
On Ash Wednesday, we at Higher Things Internet services, joked that we had "given up" graphics and fancy websites for Lent. (We didn't really, as you can tell by looking at our amazing new site!) People have the idea that the reason you give up something for Lent is to make yourself feel bad. Or to deprive yourself of something you like or that makes you happy. Since Lent has to do with Jesus suffering for our sins, people figure it's a good time to try and make themselves suffer like Jesus. That is the WRONG reason to give up anything for lent! The only suffering that does us any good for is the suffering of Jesus for our salvation. HIS suffering accomplishes our salvation. HIS pain and anguish take place in order to win for us the forgiveness of sins. Our salvation and sanctification and holiness don't come because we somehow make ourselves suffer "with" Jesus. The forgiveness of sins is ours because Jesus suffers FOR US. In our place. As our Substitute.
Lent is all about meditating upon and learning more and more about what Jesus underwent FOR YOU. Giving something up for Lent isn't about feeling guilty or trying to take away something you like so that you can feel bad about what Jesus did for you. Observing the holy season of Lent is all about receiving more and more of those very gifts that deliver salvation to you: living in your baptism, confessing your sins and being absolved, hearing the Word taught and preached, eating and drinking Jesus' body and blood which was given into death for the forgiveness of all of your sins! That's why most churches offer additional times during Lent to hear the Word preached and to receive the Sacrament.
So if Lent is all about Jesus, why give something up? There are two main disciplines in Lent: Fasting and Abstaining. Fasting means not eating for a certain time (or eating less than usual – a kind of diet). Abstaining means giving something up or going without something you normally have. Why would you do these things if they don't matter to God? Does fasting or abstaining from something mean you're somehow more holy? That you get more sins forgiven? Of course not! Fasting and abstaining don't make the Lord love you any more or any less! The Lord’s love FOR YOU is a done deal in Jesus Christ.
So why fast? Why abstain from something? Simple: for the benefit of your neighbor. The truth is, our lives are filled with things which satisfy US, they make US happy, and provide enjoyment--for US! But to give up things that we normally do or use in order to use the extra time or money for prayer, for hearing and studying God's Word or for doing good to those around us--now THAT is something useful.
Just think of what a joy it would be to others if instead of spending your time watching TV, you spent time doing something with them, like talking to your parents, or spending time with a little brother or sister who looks up to you. Or maybe giving up your video game night for a while in order to take advantage of the extra opportunities at church for worship and Bible Study that are available during Lent. Or maybe giving up fast food a few times a week and putting the money toward an offering at church. Or maybe not eating meat on Fridays to remember that it was His flesh that Jesus gave for the life of the world. Giving things up during Lent isn't about doing something for YOU, it's about learning from Christ to put all of our hope and trust in His word and to love and serve our neighbor in whatever ways they need us.
This is what Lent is really all about: learning what it is to be a Christian, that is to be baptized.. To have a cheerful hope and live in confidence that Jesus takes away our sins by His suffering and death. That's why the Catechism tell us, when we get up in the morning, to remember our baptism and “go to work at once and in good cheer.” Because there is simply no need to ever worry about how it is with us and the Lord. It's all a done deal in Christ. And because we are the Lord's, we serve our neighbors, pointing them to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and helping and serving them in whatever ways we can.
However you celebrate the season of Lent, whether you give something up or whether you fast or even if you don’t do any of these things--don't do them for God, as if that makes Him more satisfied with you. He's already pleased as punch that you are His child in Jesus! Your baptism says so! Don't even do these things for yourself, as if by your being miserable somehow makes you a better Christian. During Lent, if you give something up, do it for your neighbor who needs you and your good works more than ever. All eyes off of yourself and all ears on the Gospel, which gives us Jesus going to the cross to rescue us from sin and death. A blessed holy season of Lent to each of you, in Jesus!