You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
Giving something up for a period of time is good for body, mind, and spirit, writes the Rev Dr Lynne M. Baab.
When we voluntarily give things up, we reset our senses, experience self-mastery and make space for God.
As a child, I had several Roman Catholic friends who gave up candy for Lent. That sounded like a good idea to me. I didn’t like candy very much, making it easy to give it up, and I could feel a sense of holiness from my "sacrifice" as Easter approached.
Years passed, and Lenten fasts changed. Now every year I see a few Facebook friends posting about how they are giving up social media for Lent. People who advocate for Lenten spiritual practices these days often talk about adding something for Lent, rather than subtracting. These authors suggest we might try to be kinder to the people we live with during Lent, write a prayer in a spiritual journal, or light a candle each day and read a psalm.
In the light of all these "try something positive for Lent" messages, I was quite surprised when I logged on to The Atlantic, a secular magazine I read online, where I found an article entitled "What you gain when you give things up." The author, Arthur C. Brooks, is a professor of management at Harvard Business School. The tag line for his article says, "Voluntarily sacrificing pleasurable things resets your senses and makes you master of yourself."
Brooks recounts social science research showing that people are happier when they have exercised some personal discipline, perhaps waiting for a period of time to eat chocolate or going off coffee or alcohol for a week or a month. Research shows that chocolate tastes better if you wait for it. Brooks writes, "Sacrificing something for a short period effectively resets your senses to give you more pleasure from smaller servings of the things you love."
A month off coffee or alcohol (or social media) reveals the power of that substance and helps the person set new goals for intake. A season of sacrifice, Brooks argues, exercises our muscles of self-mastery. He adds that decades of research have shown that self-mastery "strongly predicts wellbeing in many areas of life".
Brooks teaches these principles to the future leaders he trains at Harvard. Many Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and people of other religions have known this for millennia.
Sadly, in Christian history, some of these seasons of sacrifice have been motivated by distrust of the human body, and in some instances even disgust. If the soul and spirit matter more than the body, then the body can be viewed as repugnant. Giving up food or other pleasures for a period of time is then motivated by trying to subdue this untamed and unpleasant part of us. This kind of motivation does not result in lasting positive change or joy.
Mother Teresa encouraged Western Christians to give up small treats in order to save money to give to the poor. She talked about meeting Jesus in the poor, so for her the purpose of sacrifice was to meet Jesus, not to think badly of her body.
I’m happy that Christians are increasingly viewing their bodies as part of their spirituality. Many Christians are trying to honour God by praying while walking outdoors, walking a labyrinth, or engaging in acts of physical service. Before the pandemic, spiritual pilgrimages were becoming very popular, especially the Camino de Santiago in Spain. A focus on the spirituality of gardening and cooking has increased in recent years. After all, God made us as unified beings — body, spirit, heart, soul, mind, and strength. Separating out components of ourselves simply creates too many problems. Serving God with our whole being makes more sense.
Self-denial or sacrifice for a period of time can increase our pleasure in the small and big gifts of daily life. It can help us feel more confident in our ability to exert self-control, and also help us make space for God. This self-denial might involve something related to our bodies, our purchases, or the way we spend our time, including our online presence. Christians might tweak Arthur Brook’s words: "Voluntarily sacrificing pleasurable things resets your senses, makes you master of yourself, and helps you walk in the footsteps of Jesus. In fact, as you walk in Jesus’ footsteps, you will feel his companionship."
Lent is a perfect time to experiment with this, but any time of year works just fine.
- The Rev Dr Lynne M. Baab is a former senior lecturer in the theology programme at the University of Otago. She blogs at lynnebaab.com.