Traditionally, there are two paths most people take during Lent:
1) The more traditional and common one is to give something up for Lent. Some people give up chocolate, alcohol, whatever. The idea is that it is something that you not only like, but something you will miss. Remember, Lent is about purifying ourselves as we journey with Christ to the cross. So if you do not drink coffee, there is no sacrifice or discipline in giving up coffee. Just as there is no sacrifice or discipline in giving up something you hate – like beats, or broccoli.
The idea is to either SACRIFICE something you love, or crave, or want as a devotion to God, and to discipline your physical body by going without something it craves or wants – like chocolate, or coffee. The idea is for the spiritual discipline to tame the physical passions, mastering the body through spiritual discipline and devotion.
2)The more recent development (though many who take this route will often proclaim that it is actually tapping into something older, and therefore, a more authentic expression of Lent) is to take on some attribute – make more time for prayer, be more humble, be nicer, that sort of thing. The idea is that we do not just give something up, especially knowing that we will start doing it again Easter morning, but that we practice something we either should be doing anyway, or should be doing better.
Regardless of which you decide to do, the common mistake that people make is that they are vague, whether they are giving something up, or taking something on. So the direction for Lent, is to look at what you are planning to do (or not do) and ask yourself “How can I measure this?” or “How can I be sure I am really doing (or not doing) what I decided to do (or not do)?”
For instance, say you are giving up junk food for Lent. Great! MAKE A LIST of what you mean by “junk food” and use that list to check yourself. Does junk food include, pretzels, chocolate, lunch meat, McDonalds, cake, ice cream, desserts? When a person gives up a general idea, then that person has no idea at the end of Lent if she actually followed through with it. When Lent is over, if I were to ask them if they stuck to giving up what they said they wanted to give up for Lent, the person will often express a vague sense of possibly following through, usually while saying something like: “Kind of, I guess yeah, I mean, I would have eaten some chips a couple times, but didn’t because of Lent.” Nevertheless they know that they consumed other “foods” that were not healthy for them, and would constitute “junk food” most of the time.
So the First Instruction for How To Do Lent is:
BE SPECIFIC. Say, “I’m giving up coffee,” instead of saying, “I’m giving up caffeine.” Caffeine is too general and vague because it is in all kinds of things like soda, chocolate, vitamins and supplements, and who knows what else. Give up chocolate instead of the general, vague term of “candy.” Identify what it is you are giving up, so you can measure if you are doing it or not.
This is even more true for those who are taking on a quality or something for Lent. Make sure you can measure what you are taking on. Do not say, “I’m going to be more prayerful” because that cannot be measured. Say instead, “I’m going to wake up an hour, or half-hour, early and pray,” or “I am going to find twenty minutes each day to pray.” Set a specific time each day to pray for an amount of time you decide. When the day is over, you will know if you did it or not. When Lent is over, you will know how successful you were. You will have a way to measure it. Do not say “I’m going to read the Bible more,” say “I’m going to find a half-hour each day to read the Bible.” Don’t say, “I’m going to be nicer,” (or more humble, or more patient), but instead decide what being nicer, (or being humble, or patient) looks like. Make a list of behaviors that you can do, or avoid doing, that represents being nicer, or being more humble, or patient, and do those things.
The Second Instruction for How To Do Lent is:
Before Lent begins, or on the first day of Lent, your mission is to make whatever you are planning to do or not do for Lent SPECIFIC and MEASURABLE – the technical term would “quantifiable.”
The Third Instruction for How To Do Lent:
Write a mission statement, and placing it somewhere where you will see it each day (tape it to your computer monitor, the back of your phone, put it in your wallet, but someplace where you can see it and read it each day. Remind yourself what you are giving up, or taking on, why and how you will measure it each day.
REMEMBER: Lent is not meant to be a second chance to fail at keeping a resolution for the New Year! It is a discipline, so decide exactly what your discipline will look like for the next forty days (not counting Sundays) and write it out. It will help you avoid grey areas and getting down on yourself later.