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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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  • lindsey

    Last year I gave up materialism for Lent, meaning that I did not buy any luxury material goods I did not consider essential to my health and ability to function. So I still bought food, toothpaste, soap, gas for my car, etc. But I did not buy any clothes or books or videos or jewelry, etc. That was a GREAT fast and I’m doing it again this year.

    And I am also doing a new one, which I’m really excited about. I am giving up EATING WHEN I’M NOT HUNGRY. This is a big problem for me, as I eat when I’m bored, or just because it’s something to do at certain times of the day. So now when I’m tempted to eat over this coming Lenten period, I am going to pray over it and ask myself, am I really hungry? Or am I just bored, tired, lonely, etc? I think mindfullness is always something good to cultivate and I’m looking forward to asking God’s help with this over this Lent.

  • Bill Morton

    Twenty seven years ago on Ash Wednesday I let go of my cigarette addiction. I smoked at least two packs a day. There is tremendous grace in the collective spiritual power of millions of believers making a 40-day journey as a community in the footsteps of Jesus culminating in his passion, death and resurrection. And if you do step forward in faith with a sinful area of your life and fall within a day or two DO NOT GIVE UP. Just GET UP and start the journey again. God’s grace is there to transform us in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. “Dios es muy grande!”

  • Tammy

    I gave up smoking for Lent about 10 years ago. Hardest thing I ever did. But every time I was craving a cigarette, I prayed instead. Very spiritually productive time, as well as making me healthier.

  • James Leo Oliver

    I am considering a Black Fast. Anybody ever done one?

  • Kimberly

    The last two years I have given up the radio in the car. At first it is hard because it is so natural just to start the car and turn on the radio. Of course it got easier as I journeyed through lent. I found I spent that time praying or thinking good thoughts about my friends and family. I was also more present to my son as we drove together. Good luck to everyone! Happy Lent.

  • Frank

    Phil, we now need to commit to being non-judgemental for the rest of the year, too.

    But I do have a problem with giving money to anyone who asks. There are financial obligations to family and other concerns, some of which are charitable in nature themselves. Also, there is a danger of being an enabler. One has to discern if the need for money is a need or a scam — very difficult to do I admit.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Two commenters, laury and Frank, pointed out the benefit of doing something affirmative instead of a “don’t.” The funny thing is that’s actually what I do myself. As I mention in my new column — Being imperfect doesn‚Äôt mean you’re bad, just human, I give up being judgemental about people begging for money and give to anyone who asks.

  • Frank

    Carl — you might be the smartest one of all. And I mean that sincerely, not facetiously.

  • carl carey

    I’m giving up organized religion for lent.

  • Frank

    I’m not giving up one single thing — that seems a negative action. I’m going for the positive. More patience with slow lines, the elderly, rude drivers, overworked waiters/waitresses, etc. It’s recognizing I have no idea what problem someone else is coping with that causes him/her to do something that irritates me. It is likely the person does not need another person upset with them.

  • Blessed Mom

    I have given up raising my voice for lent. As a very busy mom of 3 very active, beautiful children. My husband and I both grew up in loud, busy homes. Consequently, I find myself constantly yelling, shouting, hollaring, etc to discipline, get someone’s attention or motivate them. I believe parents set the emotional thermostat for the family and raising our voices raises the tempurature and not always in a postive way. We are only a week into Lent but I’ve already noticed a big difference – we are all enjoying the peace and quiet. There is much more serenity in our home!

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Leticia, you might enjoy this Lenten blog on our site, Lent and Other Four-Letter Words by someone who’s trying to do the same thing.

  • Leticia

    I’m trying to stop swearing, my ‘giving-up’ for Lent. My swearing is not way out but for my 13-year old son, it is uncomfortable and I always feel so bad after saying it! Now and again it slips, but now I immediately after that apologize and immediately it comes to mind to stop it ultimately. My goal is to never ever swear in front of my children or at work or alone. At the end or after Lent, I want to be a better person and doing it for 40 days, everyday, will help reaching my goal. Be an example to my children for one day, my grandchildren, I don’t want to see them doing to their children what I am doing now.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Ingol, thank you for sharing your experience. I said flat-out that things which aren’t physically addictive can become addictions for some people. I specifically mentioned porn and the internet. You seem to think I was softening that by adding:

    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.

    But your description of your past relationship to internet porn is a perfect example of something that’s not physically addictive becoming a destructive addiction for a person. It’s not just semantics to say internet pornography is not an addition, it is something you can be addicted to. Just as alcohol itself is not an addiction, but some people are addicted to it. Both items, porn and alcohol, may be bad for everyone, but not everyone who uses them is addicted to them.

  • Robert

    For this year I am giving up coffee. I drink way too much coffee each day and despite articles stating the benefits of an occasional cup, I am determined to see what happens.

  • Ingol

    By your own definition, Mr. Rose, internet pornography is an addiction. I know from experience, because I was a porn addict for ten years. It interfered with my life, and I know it interferes in the lives of others in a big way: marriages dissolve, careers sink, some porn addicts wind up in prison. It didn’t have such drastic consequences for me, but I did lose all interest in work and just “phoned in” for years. It did impact my marriage, although we are rebuilding our relationship. After an initial fascination with internet pornography, I didn’t want to do it and I tried to stop on my own for years without success. An internet site, Candeo.com, gave me the tools and a support community that I need to break the addiction. I have been clean for 15 months now. Porn use results in changes in thinking and behavior, so it is not a substance addiction like heroin or nicotine, but it is no less an addiction for that.

  • J

    I think that it is good for people with addictions to use the Lenten fast as a way out of those addictions, but in general I think a Lenten fast that is focused on bettering ourselves (e.g. giving up sweets bc we could sure use the weight loss) is missing the point. The point of Lenten fasting is not self improvement, or some sort of 40 day bad habit tweaking–it is to remind us of our utter dependence on God, that all we have (and all we give up for Lent) is really His in the first place and has been given to us undeserving sinners out of His abundance, mercy and grace and not as something we deserve. We also identify with Christ’s fasting in the desert, and ultimately his own sacrifice on the cross–God sacrificed everything for us and so our Lenten fast reminds us that like Christ we must be willing to sacrifice all for God.

  • Jo Ann

    When I was in my early twenties I gave up smoking for Lent with EVERY intention of going back to it on Easter Sunday. I had even bought a pack of expensive colored European cigarettes and called them my “Easter Eggs”. When my alarm went off on Easter Sunday, I had the pack on my night table. I was almost giddy lighting up.

    I didn’t expect what happened next – that one drag made me so sick that I quit smoking.

    It was the best thing I ever gave up for Lent.

  • Kim

    Last year was my first time to participate in Lent. My addiction was re-living situations in my head with people that I wanted to change, but couldn’t. After I was able to stop with God’s help, I also found that I could forgive those people for any wrongs and accept them as they were. I felt so blessed that God took it further than just giving up a bad habit.

    This year I am giving up complaining (to myself or others) about the things that I don’t want to do…and doing them instead of putting them off. I can’t wait to see how God will further shape my life.

    I think of Lent as the 40 days that will bring me closer to God and hopefully start a lifelong habit. I would also encourage others to choose something that is hurting them spiritually or physically to give up for Lent. You never know what God is planning to reveal to bring you closer to Him.

  • laury

    Instead of “giving up” something, I am “giving” something this Lent. I am giving more of myself to helping those in need. I am helping those who help others, the unsung heroes & heroines; those who care for others. The wife who cares for the ailing husband, the daughter caring for the mother……the people who give up large pieces of their lives with no expectation of compensation. I am giving my time so that the wife can get out for a few hours. I am running errands so that the son can actually use time for his own wishes. Helping with housework. Things like these.

    Please don’t use my name if you post this. It’s just supposed to be between me & God.

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