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As I begin to pen this little essay, I grab another three Werther's Original Hard Candies, when I've already consumed two over my daily allotment. Such is the state of my personal discipline when it comes to food—I have no discipline.

So maybe this would be a perfect thing to focus on during Lent. I'm really sick and tired of being a person who has no food discipline, and I'm sick and tired of carrying around extra weight. And to be honest, when I think about this part of my life, I'm sick and tired of me. Maybe a little abstinence will do me some good. Maybe I should give up candy for Lent. Or maybe fast one day a week. Or do something hard. Then I might learn a little food discipline. I might even start losing weight. I might even start feeling good about myself again.

This train of despair is no doubt very common this time of year. By mid-February, our New Year's resolutions are ancient history. Along comes Ash Wednesday and, well, it's like a reprieve. We get a second chance to discipline some weakness or form a new habit. Another opportunity to improve our flagging self-respect!

Lent is supposed to have more spiritual overtones than the mere self-improvement mantras of New Year's. But I suspect that for many of us, Lenten disciplines are more about us than about God. More about getting our act together in some area that continually discourages us and repeatedly sabotages our self-respect. The advantage of Lent over New Year's resolutions is that we can bring God to our side, and the whole church is there to cheer us on. But for many of us, I suspect, it's one big self-improvement regimen, with God as mere personal coach. But who am I to judge others? I have enough self-centeredness of my own to deal with.

The White Lies of Lent

I know some readers are thinking: Boy, is he being the Grinch that stole Lent. I suppose I am. But I've lived through more Lents than most people, and I've learned at least two things over the decades.

First, personal discipline gets harder, not easier, as you get older. The little white lie we tell people is that by learning to discipline ourselves for a short period, we increase our ability to be disciplined for longer periods. 

For whatever reason, this rarely, if ever, has happened to me. For example, when I was younger, I could easily fast one day a week for Lent. Now the thought of fasting once—on Ash Wednesday—drives me into a deep funk. It makes me dread Ash Wednesday. What has happened? How come all that practice at fasting has only made things worse? Because fasting has only heightened my love of food! I miss it so much when I fast! Food consoles me in sadness and helps me celebrate my joys. When it is taken away, what's there to live for?

Second, we rarely move on to bigger and better things. This unveils the other white lie we tell ourselves: As we discipline ourselves in small things (eating sweets), it will inevitably help us discipline ourselves in large things (like being generous to the poor). We get this from Jesus, of course (Luke 16:10), but it's the inevitably that's the problem. You see, when picking the small thing for self-discipline, we sometimes fail to recognize that it's not all that small. We pick it because it plagues us, and has plagued us for years. This means it's likely to continue to plague us for years to come. And so instead of helping us to move on to loving others, our life energy is spent trying to not eat little pieces of candy.

Fasting doesn't even necessarily lead us into deeper prayer, which is the big twofer of fasting for some people: We discipline the body while immersing ourselves in prayer. But when I fast, prayer is the last thing I feel like doing. I'm tired, weak, and thinking about food the whole time I'm praying. 

SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent