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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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February 22nd, 2012

What Works: What Are You Giving Up for Lent?



“What are you giving up for Lent?” is not a question I heard growing up in my atheist home. It’s second nature for most Catholics, though — to give up some favorite thing (like chocolate or ice cream) for Lent. But if you have an addiction to alcohol, a drug or cigarettes, I want you to consider using this Lent as a turning point. If you don’t have a dependence on a physically addictive substance like those, then broaden the definition a bit: How about something nonessential like caffeine or sleeping pills? (I’m not talking about prescribed medicines that balance you.) Consider seeing if you can live without it of the next 40 days. If you want to broaden the term addiction further in the now-trendy way for things like the internet and pornography, that’s OK too.

But understand that something isn’t an addiction just because you use it a lot. For it to be an addiction, it should be that your use interferes with your life, you wish if didn’t, and you can’t stop. If you have an addiction problem, odds are you already have a suspicion, though you may refuse to accept it. Or maybe friends or family have been telling you that you do.

My challenge to you for Lent

Make a commitment to abstain from something you have a problem with, starting Ash Wednesday and continuing for the duration of Lent. Not the rest of your life. Just about seven weeks. It might become a turning point. You might discover you like your life better without it and gain a real willingness to let it go. And if you don’t manage to stay stopped, you will have learned an important lesson — that this “habit” has some measure of control over you.

Make a commitment to abstain from something you have a problem with — alcohol, smoking, gambling — starting Ash Wednesday and continuing for the duration of Lent. Not the rest of your life. Just about seven weeks.

It might become a turning point. You might discover you like your life better without it and gain a real willingness to let it go. And if you don’t manage to stay stopped, you will have learned an important lesson — that this “habit” is maybe something more; that it has some measure of control over you.

(Someone may be thinking, “you’re not supposed to give up something for Lent for personal gain.” This is true. If you were giving up alcohol out of vanity or to impress people, then perhaps that would apply. But learning you have an addiction and breaking it will bring you closer to God and make you less selfish. It’s directly related to the point of Lenten fasting, which is to heighten your awareness of you attraction to and dependence on things other than God.)

Get help; don’t just try to do it alone. Especially if you are stopping something that’s physically addictive, you may go through a difficult withdrawal period and find cravings difficult to resist. There are plenty of twelve step groups and other support systems out there.

Addictions vary, though, and so do people. The fact that you can abstain for a while does not prove you don’t have a problem. Alternately, you might consider abstaining from excess. This is one of the self-administered tests often suggested to people who think they might be an alcoholic or addict. Trying to control your use without stopping altogether can be more revealing than abstinence for some situations. If and when your efforts at restraint fail — sometimes spectacularly and repeatedly — it can show you clearly your powerlessness against the addiction.

There’s a reason Lent and the Biblical stories it’s built on are 40 days long, literally or figuratively. These are stories of transition, transformation, preparation for a new phase of life. It takes the human brain four to six weeks to learn a new routine. That’s why rehabs are usually at least 28 days long. Call the extra two weeks of Lent insurance. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they encourage newcomers to kick things off with 90 days to change their patterns. That’s even more insurance, cause for them it’s a life and death issue. This is why a seven-day stint in a detox guarantees nothing unless it’s just the beginning of a new pattern.

For more about the spiritual foundations of recovery from addiction and some concrete suggestions, see my earlier column, “Spiritual Recovery.” And share your experience and struggles with giving up addictions during Lent here in comments. I’d love to hear your stories!

This column was published originally on March 9, 2011.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • P. McCoy

    Lent did not do anything for the vegan monks of Mt. Athos, who railed like wild animals when Pope John Paul II came to Greece during the subsequent season of peace Pascha. So xnay to ALL fasts for this woman; I will eat meat and dairy as I please and belong to a church that reflects that.

  • LALA Anthony

    giving up gossiping

  • zendaya coleman

    i am giving up chocolate it is bad for you especially my dancing career on shake it up my best friend Bella said it is bad for you and i will give up sin and return to virtue

  • Cheryl

    I gave up alcohol for lent and I plan to continue. I realize a lot of events I went to where I drank were really not that fun. Now I choose activities that I think I would enjoy that don’t involve alcohol to get a natural high. Looking back I can see how my abuse of alcohol has caused a lot of problems and regrets. My life is much better now–no more regrets.

  • Barbara

    FAST from judging others –
    FEAST on Christ dwelling in them.
    FAST from fear of illness –
    FEAST on the healing power of God.
    FAST from words that pollute –
    FEAST on speech that purifies.
    FAST from discontent –
    FEAST on patience.
    FAST from pessimism –
    FEAST on affirmatives.
    FAST from bitterness –
    FEAST on forgiveness.
    FAST from self-concern –
    FEAST on compassion.
    FAST from suspicion –
    FEAST on truth.
    FAST from gossip –
    FEAST on purposeful silence.
    FAST from problems that overwhelm –
    FEAST on prayer that sustains.
    FAST from worry –
    FEAST in faith.

  • annette

    For the past four years I have been blogging through Lent in an effort to force myself to actually focus. It is has been very effective and I think useful to others as well, at least that is what I am told. But this year, in addition to doing that, I am giving up Facebook to a large extent. What I have found is that the computer time I spend on there interferes with the time I have to read and write to enhance my experience. The example I want to set for my three daughters is the I am recognizing a behavior that impedes my ability to deepen my relationship with God through this holy time. We will see how I do. It won’t be entirely cause it is a resource as much as a distraction, but becoming aware of the pull it has on me, I think, will make all the difference.

  • Y.L.

    Last year I gave up dwelling on negative thoughts. While we all get them, we don’t have to re-visit or dwell on them. As a vegetarian, I basically eat the mandated “fast” all year. So what to do?
    This seemed practical, as it directly caused growth humanly and spiritually. This year, bread, except the host. Truly now my “daily bread” for the Lenten season.

  • Tim C

    Last year I reduced the amount of sugar in my coffee by 1/3 and everyday I made my coffee I thought about Lent and what Jesus did for us. It continued through the whole year. This year I am cutting the sugar in my coffee in 1/2. It is a small thing but it reminds me daily of the need for abstinence and faith.

  • Carmen

    I am giving up computer games for Lent. I am struggling with the depression (though, that seems like too harsh a word) of long-term underemployment, watching my hard-earned life saving dwindle down to nothing, and the possiblity of losing my car. Computer games started out as a way to unwind, but have slowly began to be a way of drowning my sorrows. Perhaps, with all the time I have now, I will finish the book I am writing, or read one, or apply for a job I will get (400 jobs applied to and counting, btw).

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