For Christians, those folks who aspire to be more like Jesus Christ, personal sacrifice is an expected element of the spiritual path. Christians are not the only ones who sacrifice; just ask any mom, soldier, or humanitarian. Mom, of course, is the only one who will go into great detail on the subject.
Giving up something we enjoy for the sake of another is not limited by religion. Parents often make choices, such as Jane’s education vs. touring Europe, and flat-screen TV vs. Wii. People make sacrifices with (and within) their careers, choosing social work over medicine or public defender work over corporate law. Although this article is about “giving up for Lent,” the implications reach beyond the Christian denominations.
Most of my life I thought that giving something up for Lent was either a church-imposed, needless ritual or just silly. I didn’t have a clue how not eating chocolate honored God. But for the last ten or twelve years, I have observed Lent by abstaining from things I like, and I take my Lenten obligations seriously; for me, it’s a promise I have made to God. One year I gave up beef, caramel, and sleeping late. Since I have few responsibilities, I get out of bed whenever I please. So my sacrifice was to be out of bed by 9:00 a.m. every day. I admit, I failed once and got up at 9:01. I did feel guilty.
Giving up caramel was interesting because I was pretty much a caramel addict. I don’t particularly like chocolate (I hear the gasps out there!), but I did end up occasionally substituting chocolate at caramel time. Subsequently, I lost my taste for caramel, as well as chocolate, and seldom indulge in either.
Giving up beef that year was the most traumatic. I’m a flexitarian, which means that I eat meat, but not much of it. Dropping beef for 46 days (technically, Lent is 40 days because it does not include Sundays), should have been a no-brainer. And it was. Until St. Patrick’s Day. You know, corned beef. I’m not Irish, but on St. Patrick’s Day I do serve the traditional corned beef and cabbage. As the big day approached and I could practically taste it, I suddenly realized, “Oh yeah, corned BEEF!” I was disconsolate. I did not, however, break my promise. We had corned beef and cabbage on Easter.
An elemental aspect of giving something up for Lent is a commitment or promise. Sacrifice does not have a season, though, and you can give something up at any time, for any amount of time. “I will not chew gum for a month.” “I’ll never tell another lie.” It shouldn’t be something offhand (“I swear if the next light is green, I’ll give up potato chips”) and it helps if you consciously make the promise to someone else (your child or parent, God, yourself, your spouse). Incentives for adhering to the commitment are that if you don’t, you are disappointing someone important to you (or something, like the planet), and the knowledge that you are only as good as your word. Declaring sacrifices is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions, but it becomes more serious because we are obligating ourselves.
What is the purpose of sacrifice? For me, Lent is a reminder of what I believe in and why, and my sacrifice honors that. I learned from one of my Lenten sacrifices that it can be life-changing.
The year before I gave up caramel, beef, and sleeping late, I gave up beef and spending money on myself. Food and any needed medications were exempt, as were a variety of items that most middle-class people would not consider luxuries, such as soap, detergent, and cleaning supplies. For a shopaholic, this was a major commitment. Despite knowing that I had plenty of everything (not just enough, but too much), I was a fanatical shopper. I dedicated certain days of the week to shopping, and it was as much a part of my life as eating or sleeping. I was a slave to bargains.
Temptation was always there, since I had to, at least, go to the grocer’s on a regular basis, and there aren’t very many grocers around. Every grocery store carries goods that cannot in any way be defined as “groceries,” i.e., “foodstuffs and various household supplies” (thefreedictionary.com). I succumbed only once, and that was at Dollar General where I bought a “cute” $1 pad. When I got home with my purchases I realized I had goofed (I put the pad away until after Lent). My husband offered, once, to buy me something that I “really really really” wanted, which technically would not be breach of contract, since HE would be spending money on me. After much self-argument and Chip’s repeated “Are you sure?”, I declined. I felt it would be cheating.
When Lent was over, I felt very good about what I had accomplished. Seven weeks and I’d spent only $1 frivolously. I didn’t expect a reward for my effort; I regarded it as partial payment for something I’d already received. You can explain the results any way you please. This doesn’t prove the value of Lenten sacrifices; it illustrates the value of honoring a commitment.
The fact is, I stopped mindless shopping. Expecting not to benefit but to suffer from the experience, I had become a better person. Another lesson learned: sacrifice does not equal suffering. Did I grow up? Did abstinence breed contempt? Did God reward me? Was it shock therapy? What ultimately happened is open to interpretation, and a variety of people will have a variety of opinions. However, nearly every time I give something up, and I honor the commitment, I win (let’s not count the getting-up-at-a-decent-time incident). Whether it’s breaking habits, routines, or lifestyles, I benefit. Maybe I don’t like to break promises, maybe I don’t like having promises broken. Either way, without making a conscious attempt to improve myself, I improved.
The money I didn’t spend on myself, I used to buy food for my church’s food bank. The time I didn’t waste in stores, I spent on things that were interesting to me, whether art or sewing or reading. Finally, Chip and I could stop having that conversation that always ends with “…but where are we going to put all this stuff?” One of the things we normally learn when we are deprived of something to which we’ve become accustomed is to appreciate that thing. I found learning that I didn’t need that thing in the first place is even more important.
You don’t have to be a Christian to make a vow, and it doesn’t matter to whom you make it. What matters is that your word is your bond, especially to yourself.