The Two Sides of the Lenten Fast Argument

Is fasting about sacrifice or self-denial?

Anton Ažbe (1862-1905), “Hermit”
Anton Ažbe (1862-1905), “Hermit” (photo: Public Domain)

Lent is a time of penance. Penance aids us in growing toward holiness. By way of penance, then, Lent offers us a special chance to grow in holiness. There’s more, though. As many readers know, the fast is one of the three acts we are supposed to emphasize during Lent, the others being the addition of prayer and alms.

For the fast, as a tradition, we choose something to abstain from, but this can be a controversy for some. In a recent discussion, a co-worker said, “You know, I’ve been going to church for decades and every Lent, I and others choose to give something up, like chocolate or sweets, or something tangible. But I’ve never once heard someone say they’re giving up something like envy, bitterness, cussing, or something intangible like that.” I’ve seen the same argument online.

What do you think? I, actually, know a lot of people who have given up something like this. But there are some who would object, “Wait, you shouldn’t be doing those things anyways. Why would you give up a sin or a bad habit for Lent?”

They make a good point. Opponents argue that Lent is for giving up something that would require sacrifice. They say something we enjoy or depend on, which we deny ourselves of, is a sacrifice. The self-discipline this abstinence promotes is good for the soul. They make a good point, but are they totally correct? Is this idea of the Lenten fast better, or is it more authentic to the observance of the Lenten fast?

I don’t know if I have the answer to this, but here are my thoughts.

First, there’s a difference between a bad habit and a sin. Some bad habits lead us to sin. Others are just bad habits. For example, interrupting people is a bad habit, and more interrupting might be annoying to others, but it shouldn’t lead us to sin. The habit of reading gossip magazines or watching R-rated movies might be bad habits, too, but they can often lead us to sin. Giving up any of these, though, regardless of their habitual consequences, requires a heightened level of self-control.

When I consider this, I come to a few conclusions. There appears to be a disagreement about the value and Lenten relevance of a sacrifice versus self-control, tangible and intangible, pleasure and habit, respectively throughout.

Giving up something tangible, like chocolate, which is pleasurable, does require sacrifice. Not eating chocolate, a pleasure which might be habitual for some, does require self-control. I’m persuaded to believe that this fast is more strictly focused on sacrifice.

Giving up something intangible, like watching R-rated movies, which might be habitual, does require self-control. Not watching R-rated movies, which can be pleasurable, does require sacrifice. I’m persuaded to believe that this fast is more strictly focused on self-control.

What I see is that both types of fasting — fasting from things and fasting from behavior — require discipline and self-control. So, is one better than the other? Is one more authentic to the observance of the Lenten fast than the other?

I don’t believe one is better than the other because both types require both actions — sacrifice and self-control. Anything that requires sacrifice involves self-control. Anything that requires self-control involves sacrifice. The two are not the same, but the two are inseparable.

I think the real question is, what is fasting for? You’ll read over and over that Lent is a season of penance, not a season of preparation. But penance and preparation are not mutually exclusive when we consider the purpose of fasting (of which there are undeniably many). We fast before Mass in order to prepare ourselves for the Eucharist. We also fast during Lent in order to prepare ourselves for the Eucharist on Easter. Fasting is always preparatory, and in this way, Lent is certainly a season of preparation. We prepare through fasting, and our yield is the fruit of holiness.

There’s a Lenten spirit attached to anything that requires self-denial and self-discipline, even if it’s just a bad habit. Whether it’s a thing or an attitude, something that strictly sacrificial or something that strictly self-control, the object is preparation, and the outcome is holiness.