“What are you giving up for Lent?” is not a question I heard growing up in my atheist home. It’s second nature for many Christians, though, to give up some favorite thing like chocolate or ice cream for the weeks leading up to Easter. Whether it’s part of your tradition or not, 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 one of 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.) Just consider seeing if you can live without one of these things for 40 days. (If you want to broaden the term addiction further in the now-trendy way to include things like the internet and pornography, that’s OK too, but I’d encourage you to focus on something physical.)
My challenge to you for Lent
So here’s my challenge to you: Make a commitment to abstain from something you may have a compulsive relationship with — alcohol, caffeine, porn — starting Ash Wednesday and continuing for the duration of Lent until Easter. Not the rest of your life. Just about six weeks.
Whatever it is you give up, 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.
Every year when I offer this challenge, I get a few members of the dogma police who correct me by saying, “you’re not supposed to give up something for Lent for personal gain.” If your plan were to give up booze to lose weight, then perhaps that would apply. But learning you have an addiction and breaking it is directly related to the point of Lenten fasting: which is to heighten your awareness of your attachment to and dependence on things other than God.
I encourage you to abstain from whatever it is you choose, but 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 in some situations. If and when your efforts at restraint fail — sometimes spectacularly and repeatedly — it can show you clearly how powerless you are over the addiction.
There’s a reason Lent and Biblical stories of transition, transformation and preparation for a new phase of life are 40 days long (literally or figuratively). 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. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they encourage newcomers to kick things off with 90 days to change their patterns. That extra time is insurance, because it’s a life and death issue. This is why a seven-day stint in a detox guarantees nothing unless it’s the beginning of a new pattern.
If you are stopping something that’s strongly physically addictive, you may go through a difficult withdrawal period and find cravings near impossible to resist. Get help. There are plenty of twelve-step programs and other support systems out there.
A few caveats
I’m not saying everyone has an addiction they need to give up. Something isn’t an addiction just because you do it a lot and enjoy it. You may even get in trouble with it occasionally. I’m talking about when something 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 not want to accept it. Maybe friends or family have been telling you.
I’m also not saying that everything addictive is bad even if it doesn’t harm us. But this is still a useful exercise. At one point in my life I gave up caffeine altogether. I went back to using it, but it was very helpful to see how dependent I was, and now I enjoy a strong cup of coffee each morning, but no longer drink it throughout the day.
And finally, I’m not saying that the fact that you can abstain for a while proves you don’t have a problem. Addictions vary, and so do people. (Here’s another test: If you’re trying to prove you don’t have a problem… you probably do.)
So there’s my challenge, take it or leave it: Make a commitment to abstain from something you have a dependence on, starting Ash Wednesday and continuing for the duration of Lent — about six weeks. You might discover you like your life better without it or at least learn more about your relationship with it.
For more about the spiritual foundations of recovery from addiction and some concrete suggestions check out my earlier post, Spiritual Recovery. And share your experience and struggles with giving up addictions during Lent here in comments. I’d love to hear your stories!
You can see all my Lent-themed pieces together at patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/tag/lent/. Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!