It mildly irritates me when friends ask what I am giving up for Lent and then look disappointed when I say that I don’t give up anything for Lent. “I am giving up chocolate” (or alcohol) they sometimes confide, with a small note of pride.
There is no denying that the Christian season of Lent is associated with a time of austerity, abstinence and penance and there is nothing wrong with spiritual discipline when it is used to bring about opportunities for self reflection and closeness to God.
However, Lent does pose its problems and we are warned about them in scripture. First of all, giving up superficial luxuries is not really that sacrificial. To pat yourself on the back for giving up chocolate for a few weeks (probably because you want to shed a few pounds anyway) seems a form of self indulgent play acting, especially when we know of so much starvation in the world. No wonder we are told that we should not make a display of an act of fasting or denial.
I am also opposed to the idea of Lent as a time of guilt and spiritual suffering. There is a place for awareness of sin, but wallowing in a sense of our imperfections and shortcomings is helpful to few people. The Christian emphasis on sin, guilt and unworthiness is particularly unhealthy, in fact downright damaging to anyone who is prone to shame or low self esteem, particularly those who have suffered abuse, who have been controlled by oppressive churches or religious ideologies, or who struggle with painful issues.
Lent should never be about a self imposed suffering that cripples the soul, rather about spending time with God, valuing ourselves and others. Isaiah 58 is a wonderful passage for a theology of liberation, true fasting is NOT for “bowing one’s head like a reed or lying on sackcloth and ashes”:
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard
Isaiah 58:6-8 (New International Version)