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God's Politics

Diana Butler Bass: Giving Up Lent for Lent

This week, Christians around the world begin Lent – the 40-day period of fasting, prayer, and repentance leading to Easter.

In seminary, one of my friends eagerly awaited his yearly celebration of Lent, calling it his “favorite church season.” Since Lent starts with a morbid reminder of human mortality – “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” – I always wondered if he needed therapy more than ashes on his forehead. As Christmas faded into fond memory, I dreaded Lent’s approach. Only it stood between Easter and me. Forty days of guilt whenever I ate chocolate.

A few years ago, I stopped struggling with my bad attitude toward Lent. I gave up Lent for Lent. I skipped Ash Wednesday, made no promises to God, and instituted no rigorous prayer schedule. I wanted to enjoy one March with no onerous spiritual obligations.


An odd thing happened, however, during my Lenten non-observance. I began to understand and experience Lent in new and deeper ways. When freed from expectations and requirements, sermons and scriptures spoke to my soul. By the end of Lent, I found myself willingly attending extra services, including two Good Friday liturgies. On Easter Sunday, the resurrection broke over me with unexpected power – with love joyfully overcoming the intense introspection that built during my non-Lenten weeks.

Giving up Lent for Lent taught me a paradoxical principle found in many faiths: that which we give up returns to us. When we cast our bread upon the water, it comes back multiplied. Jesus taught that to save our lives, we must lose them. The last shall be first in God’s Kingdom. The meek shall inherit the earth.


Scoffers and believers alike have often misunderstood these teachings. For a secular person, giving up to gain might appear as either reverse self-centeredness or stupidity. And believers sometimes treat this paradox as a magic cure-all, a kind of spiritual excuse to avoid practicing justice. (After all, the poor can look forward to heaven; why help them now?) But both miss the point. When we cling tightly to our own desires, we struggle and suffer. When we let go of these desires, God can move us toward deeper spiritual understanding and compassion. Our desire melts into God’s desire for shalom.

This spiritual paradox was enshrined by 19th century evangelicals – and later borrowed by Twelve Step groups – as “Let Go and Let God.” When I was younger, I heard this spiritual catch phrase in church and thought it superficial. Through the years, however, I have learned the essential truth expressed in this oft-repeated mantra.


To give up, to surrender to God, is neither popular nor easy. And you cannot make someone else do it – that is oppression – and has often been misused to control others. But surrender is a truthful way of life, the way that Jesus preached and modeled, the way that he called his followers to. Buddhists have sometimes enacted this principle better than Christians, teaching that attachment is the source of human suffering and detachment is the path to fulfillment.

When I gave up Lent for Lent, it become clear that I needed to give up the idea that certain religious disciplines would bring me closer to God. This belief had plagued me since I was an evangelical teenager struggling with my congregation’s expectation for a “daily quiet time.” Never able to maintain this program of spiritual rigor, I felt like a Christian failure. When I finally admitted that I could not do it, I experienced a new freedom in prayer. Giving up led me to a richer and deeper connection of God in prayer, and led me to practice prayer in ways that resonate with who God has made me to be – unique, meaningful, and transformative. Not a program, but a way of being.


Lent tempts Christians to try to fulfill other people’s expectations of what spirituality should look like, usually related to some sort of religious achievement or self-mortification. But Lent is neither success nor punishment. Ultimately, Lent urges us to let go of self-deception and pleasing others. These 40 days ask only one thing of us: to find our truest selves on a journey toward God.

Giving up Lent for Lent meant giving up guilt. Although I have been back to church for Ash Wednesday many times since I gave up Lent for Lent, that year freed me from spiritual tyranny and helped me understand Easter anew. The journey to Easter is not a mournful denial of our humanity. Rather, Lent embraces our humanity – our deepest fears, our doubts, our mistakes and sins, our grief, and our pain. Lent is also about joy, self-discovery, connecting with others, and doing justice. Lent is not morbid church services. It is about being fully human and knowing God’s presence in the crosshairs of blessing and bane. And it is about waiting, waiting in those crosshairs, for resurrection.


Diana Butler Bass ( is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco).

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posted February 21, 2007 at 8:20 pm

As one of those people that has never taken lent seriously this has been an encouragement. Thanks. p

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Kris Weinschenker

posted February 21, 2007 at 8:30 pm

ROFLMAO!!!! A friend of mine from elementary school days used to say the EXACT same thing, i.e. he was “giving up lent for lent”. I didn’t mind lent that much though, it meant the scholl would always serve pizza on Fridays!

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Mike Hayes

posted February 21, 2007 at 10:57 pm

“…cast your bread upon the water…” was a favorite saying of my mother’s mother. My mother would tell us many times how her mother (there were 14 siblings) insisted upon helping any person needing help, though they lived by subsistence farming, much of the time. I’m not sure whether my grandmother was ever baptized (my mother was very concerned because her next youngest brother had not been baptized), but if she did not earn salvation by the life she led, there must be a lot of us who will not…

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Mike Hayes

posted February 21, 2007 at 10:59 pm

How clearly the “what are you going to give up for lent” process comes up in my memory… At some point, the theme switched to “what are you going to do, for lent”…

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posted February 22, 2007 at 5:55 am

“And believers sometimes treat this paradox as a magic cure-all, a kind of spiritual excuse to avoid practicing justice. (After all, the poor can look forward to heaven; why help them now?)” Who says that? Have you ever seriously met this person? It’s incredulous to set up straw men so transparent in your argument. If there is more than one Christian like this out there (and I’m sure there’s one), they’re not even an audible voice, let alone a segment large enough to justify being the lone object of denigration. “but if she did not earn salvation by the life she led, there must be a lot of us who will not…” I’m going to go out on a limb and say that none of us will earn our salvation without confessing Christ as Lord. This is an honest question: Do most progressive Christians believe that salvation can be “earned” without belief in Christ?

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posted February 22, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Elmo, if there is no such thing as Christians who are scornful towards the poor, then why is the move in Congress for an increased minimum wage met with such staunch opposition, especially by the religious right? That’s just one example. Oh, and by the way, Lutherans believe that salvation can be achieved only through God’s grace. The list is very, very long of people who have publicly proclaimed Christ as Lord only to proceed to engaging in plentiful, unconscionable acts proving said individuals to have zero character, ethics, integrity and decency. I will not engage in well-worn roads of debate along the lines of ‘I’m OK, you’re not a Catholic’ and such. But I do have concerns over judging the ‘salvation score’ of a person based on the precision to which they accept religious dogma and overlook how they behave in this world. God, I like to think, is much more concerned with how well we treat the poor and others in need (regardless of their religious affiliation, BTW) than whether we eat fish ‘n chips instead of a steak sub on Friday. One more thought: Buddhists for the most part seem to do a rather good job with ‘Lent-like’ avoidance of self-indulgence (in terms of food or misbehavior) and mindfulness and gratitude 365 days a year. Just saying, people! :)

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posted February 22, 2007 at 3:48 pm

Charles asked: Elmo, if there is no such thing as Christians who are scornful towards the poor, then why is the move in Congress for an increased minimum wage met with such staunch opposition, especially by the religious right? That’s just one example. I don’t pretend that there is no such thing as a Christian who is scornful towards the poor, but I can tell you that a lot of opposition to minimum wage increases is based on a serious and credible belief that minimum wage increases do little to help the poor. In particular because among those earning the minimum wage part-time workers from middle-class families outnumber full-time workers from poor families. There are other steps that are more likely to be of value to the poor than minimum wage hikes:*improving education, especially by restoring the emphasis on basics like reading, writing, mathematics, and science, in order to improve the employability of high-school graduates. *regaining some semblance of control over immigration, so that the working poor are not forced to compete against illegal workers who are hired “under the table” and hence are not subject to minimum wage and hour laws. *stimulating business to make more jobs available for unskilled workers. The vast majority of poor families do not have an adult working full-time year round. A lot of these families would be out of poverty if they had a full-time breadwinner, without any increase in hourly wages. Now this agenda is different from yours, but that doesn’t make it any less compassionate. Just because two doctors come up with different diagnoses doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to save the patient. Wolverine

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posted February 22, 2007 at 3:53 pm

*stimulating business to make more jobs available for unskilled workers. The vast majority of poor families do not have an adult working full-time year round. A lot of these families would be out of poverty if they had a full-time breadwinner, without any increase in hourly wages. This is a lie. I worked w/ these families for a short time in the field and even though it helped to have two breadwinners it did not lift them out of poverty. As a matter of fact they were still struggling to feed a family of five. Clothes for the kids were not new… IF that’s what you are suggesting then please come up w/ something better. p

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A Hermit

posted February 22, 2007 at 5:47 pm

I’ve decided to give up self-restraint and moderation for Lent…>;-}

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posted February 22, 2007 at 6:02 pm

Wolverine, thanks for your post. By improving education, though, I hope you are not alluding to No Child Left Behind, which merely piles more unfunded mandates on local schools. Perhaps one thing we can agree on: it would be very “Christian” of the US Government to honor its verbal commitment of 40% of local school costs for severely mentally retarded students. They are not even close to that now, and everyone suffers.

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posted February 22, 2007 at 8:34 pm

Charles – Conservatives oppose the minimum wage increase for economic reasons, based on several factors, none of which are because we are “scornful towards the poor”. One of those factors is that a number of labor unions set their wages as a factor of the minimum wage. So if the minimum wage jumps $2, they could get a raise of 2, 3 or 4 times that much, increasing the cost of services. Whether you support a minimum wage increase isn’t an indicator of whether or not you care for the poor. Neither is your position on any government program supported by taxes. I would rather choose how and where to give my money to the poor, because private non-profits are much more efficient than the government, meaning more of my money gets to the people who need it. That’s good stewardship. The debate shouldn’t be framed in such a way that if you oppose government programs, it means you’re hostile to the poor, even if you give a great deal to private programs. Also, I didn’t say that all you have to do to be saved is confess Christ as Lord. I just said you can’t be saved without doing it. Salvation can be achieved only through God’s grace, which we must accept to receive. And I think anyone who overlooks how they behave in this world or how they treat the poor doesn’t have the Spirit in them.Payshun -George Will had a WaPo column last month with plenty of statistics about who gets the minimum wage and who will be affected by the hike. Here’s a little chunk: Most of the working poor earn more than the minimum wage, and most of the 0.6 percent (479,000 in 2005) of America’s wage workers earning the minimum wage are not poor. Only one in five workers earning the federal minimum lives in families with earnings below the poverty line. Sixty percent work part time, and their average household income is well over $40,000. (The average and median household incomes are $63,344 and $46,326, respectively.) Forty percent of American workers are salaried. Of the 75.6 million paid by the hour, 1.9 million earn the federal minimum or less, and of these, more than half are under 25 and more than a quarter are between ages 16 and 19. Many are students or other part-time workers. Sixty percent of those earning the federal minimum or less work in restaurants and bars and earn tips — often untaxed, perhaps — in addition to wages. Two-thirds of those earning the federal minimum today will, a year from now, have been promoted and be earning 10 percent more. Stimulating the economy to create more and better jobs will do more for poor families anyway. They’ll get some immediate benefits from this, but they’ll still be earning minimum wage. More employment opportunities means better conditions and better wages.As far as education goes, I think the best proposals come from the The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce report (the site seems to be down right now). We need an entirely new educational structure to if we’re going to continue to lead the world economically.

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posted February 22, 2007 at 8:37 pm

Wolverine – In Alan B. Krueger’s (Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy,Princeton University) memo dated 4/4/06, Re: Two Labor Economic Issues for the Immigration Debate, he states, “…confident predictions that immigrant inflows have depressed the wages and employment opportunities of U.S. workers, particularly of the less skilled, belie an unsettled and often unsupportive research base. The best available evidence does not support the view that large waves of immigrants in the past have had a detrimental effect on the labor market opportunities of natives, including the less skilled and minorities.” Numerous academics & economists including a handful of nobel laureates have signed onto this memo. Also: Are the conservative policies you outlined based on the core principle to help the poor and distressed, or another way to ask the question, do you support them primarily because of how you feel they will benefit the ‘least among us?’ It seems to me that if I want to help somebody, it makes less sense to give a bunch of money to their boss trusting him to pass the gift along, and much more sense to give it directly to them. When I hear somebody argue that they favor conservative policies – against minimum wage laws for example – primarily because they want to see poor people escape their situation, it seems a tad disingenuous. It seems apparent that there are other more important motivations at work. Am I wrong in this assumption Wolervine?

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Jessica Rodgers

posted February 22, 2007 at 9:13 pm

“These 40 days ask only one thing of us: to find our truest selves on a journey toward God.” Actually, Diana, Ash Wednesday is my favorite church holiday too. It’s not that I need therapy for liking a holiday that reminds us of the truth our own mortality. Ash Wednesday’s message is enough. When they impose the ashes, my priests say,”Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What a relief! Here I am – twenty-two years old, dreaming impossible dreams, wanting to fix everything that’s wrong with the world, trying to find a job that will pay me to do it, and wishing for perfect relationships with my families and friends. We are told that Christian young people need ‘vocation, vocation, vocation’ some sort of perfect response to a clearly outlined calling. The media say that we need to be skinny, beautiful, confident, rich, and cool. Here in Washington, we re also judged by our job titles, bosses, and contacts. There is no room for vulnerability in any of this.I am dust, and to dust I shall return. Sometimes priests also say, Repent, and believe the Gospel. Either way, this Lenten kickoff prepares me for death and resurrection by reminding me of what s really true: that I am dust. That I need repentance. That I need to focus! I also really love walking around with ashes on my forehead. I m being exposed as the person I really am, and I don’t need to pretend that I am skinny, have a perfect job, or know Senator so-and-so. Even if I had all of those things nobody would notice because there is a big black smudge on my face! When I see ashes on other people, I remember that we are all children of the living God, saved by grace. What a necessary tradition, and what a beautiful relief! Morbid a focus on death may be, but things that are true give true life.When he was here in October the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem spoke about the terrible conditions facing Arab Christians, and his words still fit for us five months later: As Christians, we have a great hope that beyond the winter of life there is a spring.Well. Amen!

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Bill Samuel

posted February 23, 2007 at 1:08 am

Well, Diana, I think a major point made by Jesus is that it isn’t rituals that save us; it’s a heart change. You appear to have lived that reality. For me, I did not come out of a liturgical tradition and for decades I was part of a tradition that historically disdained marking any part of the church calendar. So for me it was an opening to observe Lent, not as a church ritual I need to do, but as an opportunity to focus on what is really important. The church I’m now part of (having left my former tradition) this year had an Ash Wednesday service (something new for it) which used the accepted scriptures for the occasion and included the placing of ashes on our foreheads. I found it deeply meaningful.

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Mystical Seeker

posted February 27, 2007 at 6:13 pm

I never really “got” the idea of Lent myself. The funny thing is that Jesus himself was party animal who was more about celebration than fasting. I don’t have a problem with others who find value in ascetic practices, Lent, fasting, or anything else if it brings them closer to God, but I personally am not a big fan of that sort of thing. I skipped the Ash Wednesday celebration at my church, and have no regrets about that.

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The Rev. Dr. Susan Dolan-Hende

posted March 1, 2007 at 2:26 pm

First off, I am not conservative. I have always considered myself a Sojourner’s evangelical – traditional doctrine,radical politics. Two comments: Diane, and Jim Wallis for that matter, are looking more like liberal protestants everyday, and we already know that that is a dead end. Second, to Diane: Have you noticed throughout your books you are always ready to give up some part of the faith? Convert to some position that is easier? Then you bask in all the support and, yes, career advancement that comes your way. I am sorry that this sounds harsh; I am not a harsh person. But I see a pattern here – sort of like the two bishop’s dialogue in The Great Divorce. Sorry

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