Why I’m Not Giving Up Sugar For Lent

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Lent crossYesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar. It has been customary since the days of the early church to observe this season culminating in Holy Week by focusing on repentance, prayer, and fasting. Certainly, by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, Lent was an established tradition. In our day and age, Lent has also become a time for discussion of what fasting means. The term “fasting” normally refers either to going a while without any food, or to reducing the amount or variety of food for a longer period of time. Either way, fasting is usually done specifically for spiritual reasons. In Christianity, fasting is most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, largely because the Roman Catholic church has codified what, when, and how much someone should eat in order to officially be fasting. (Essentially, Catholics who are fasting can eat one regular-sized meal and two small meals a day, but no snacks and on Fridays, no meat other than fish) However, fasting is also observed by other Christians, although it is generally phrased as “giving up {fill in the blank} for Lent”, where the thing being given up can be pretty much anything. The purpose is not only to exercise self-control, but to draw the focus towards Christ.

As it is generally practiced, giving things up for Lent seems to me to be pretty similar to a New Year’s resolution, except with a specified end date. Some people participate in this tradition by focusing on “giving up” a certain vice, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems to imply that it’s okay to pick up that bad habit again after Easter. Other people decide to give up certain types of food. I get the impression that giving up processed sugars is one of the most common forms of Lenten fasting in twenty-first century America. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like a lot of people are motivated by the health benefits or the possible weight loss, rather than spiritual reasons.

For a couple years when I was in college, I gave up certain specific types of foods for Lent. The past few years, I’ve considered it. In fact, this year, I had briefly been planning on fasting in a fairly traditional sense by giving up several different types of food and essentially limiting my intake to a few specific staples. The reason I decided against that fast is pretty personal, but I decided to blog about it anyway because it’s helpful for me to put my thought process into words and because there’s a chance that someone out there might find this helpful to read.

Once or twice previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact that I have struggled with eating disordered tendencies. I’m not going to go into the details and tell the whole story, but the relevant detail is that I’m very prone to going through phases where I essentially take a break from normal eating. I’ve never been severely underweight or dangerously malnourished, but I definitely have engaged in eating habits that count as fasting. But for me, it’s not a religious thing at all. On the contrary, it’s a distraction from God.

various types of sugarThat may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain. In our culture, there is a trend of self-righteous attitudes about foods. Vegans and vegetarians often make it sound as if they view themselves as being morally superior to meat-eaters, which makes some degree of sense, since most people choose veganism or vegetarianism because they’re ethically opposed to eating animals. But people who eat low-carb diets or low-sugar diets or gluten-free diets often act the same way. Overeating and being overweight are associated with a lack of self-control and a lack of priorities, whereas a rigidly defined diet is associated with good self-control and balanced priorities. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not morally wrong to have junk food every now and then. In fact, I don’t think it would be taking Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 out of context to mention those verses here. Jesus was referring to the Pharisee’s dietary rules when he said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but rigid dietary rules defined by health guidelines are comparable to rigid dietary rules defined by Jewish law.

Of course, eating disorders are very different from—and in many ways, contrary to—a focus on healthy living and a clean diet. Even the attitude is opposite, since people with eating disorders are almost always highly self-critical rather than self-righteous. But most people with eating disorders have been influenced by that cultural idea that eating the wrong things is disgusting, unclean, and perhaps morally wrong. Eating disorders that are characterized by undereating are often (if not always) just an extreme of that concept, in which eating is seen as unclean in and of itself. Compulsive undereating tends to be driven by perfectionism and low self-esteem that is so extreme that it’s just as self-focused as arrogance and self-righteousness. For someone with a history of a restrictive eating disorder, even one as minor as mine, fasting doesn’t make room for Christ-centered thoughts, it makes room for more eating-disordered thoughts.

My decision not to give up unhealthy foods for Lent was based partly on the fact that it might lead to long-term unhealthy habits, but it was mostly because it would serve no spiritual purpose for me. I don’t want to sound preachy here, but I think that even people without eating disorders might sometimes be fasting for the wrong reason. Giving up processed sugar or cutting back on carbs or consuming fewer calories are all things that people often do for themselves, either to benefit their health or to make themselves look better. If your Lenten fast is making you focus on your health, then it isn’t really a fast, it’s a diet. Even if you are giving up something that isn’t food and isn’t health-related, it isn’t really a fast if you’re focused on yourself.

The important thing to remember in Lent is that we are all sinners, (no matter how much or how little sugar we eat) and that sin is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that nothing we do, not even willing self-deprivation, can get rid of that sin or fix the problems it causes in the world. The only thing that can solve the problem of sin is Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the time of year for us to remember how sad that is, but when Easter comes, it will be time for us to again focus on the joy we have in our salvation. And that joy and that salvation have nothing to do with what you eat during Lent.

Today is not a holiday; tomorrow is

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Mardis GrasI didn’t know what Mardis Gras was until I was twelve years old. You see, before that, my family had lived in The Land Where People Don’t Put Sugar In Their Iced Tea, aka not the South. It’s not that non-Southerners are in general completely ignorant of the existence of Mardis Gras; it’s just that it isn’t a major part of the culture, and so it didn’t happen to be something that had ever come up in my own experiences up to that point. And then we moved to the South, where Mardis Gras is a fairly noteworthy holiday associated with specific traditions and connotations. (I’d rank it somewhere between Saint Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day in cultural prominence) I’m sure that Mardis Gras here is nowhere near as big a deal as it is in New Orleans, but it still is an important enough occasion to be the topic of many facebook statuses, the theme in the cafeteria today, and the reason for various parties. That wasn’t the way things were in the Midwest. Don’t get me wrong; I love the South, (and I prefer my iced tea to be sweetened) but I’m really not a fan of the whole Mardis Gras thing.

Mardis Gras is, by definition, the day before Ash Wednesday. (Although, depending upon the context, Mardis Gras doesn’t necessarily refer only to the one day) “Mardis Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday”, which, along with “Shrove Tuesday”, is an alternate name for the occasion. The original point was that the last day before Lent should be a day of feasting and celebration because of the fasting that would occur when Lent started. That already seems like a kind of silly idea to me. It’s comparable to deliberately eating unhealthily right before starting a diet, but even less logical because a diet is something you do for the sake of bettering your health, not because it’s Lent. (Although I hear a lot of people talking about going on a diet for Lent because they want to lose weight. They’re kind of missing the point; giving something up for Lent is not the same thing as a New Year’s Resolution.) What makes the observance of Mardis Gras even sillier, though, is that there are people who celebrate it who aren’t Christians, don’t observe Lent, and don’t think of Mardis Gras as being religious in any way.

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine's Day

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine’s Day

I do understand the argument that just because an observance had a religious origin doesn’t mean that it is still a completely religious occasion. After all, we observe Valentine’s Day by celebrating secular notions of romantic love and by eating red jello, and we observe Saint Patrick’s Day by celebrating Irish culture and eating green jello. That isn’t sinful, even though those days were originally religious observances, and so I suppose it technically also isn’t sinful to observe the last day before Lent by wearing colored beads and eating whatever color jello we think should be associated with Mardis Gras. (Yellow? Purple? Actually, as far as I know, Mardis Gras isn’t a jello holiday, but perhaps it should be, since it has so much in common with the other jello holidays. Maybe I’d like Mardis Gras better if it was a jello holiday.) Of course, some people would argue that the religious/secular shift goes both ways; they claim that Christmas and Easter weren’t originally religious holidays. Actually, it is more accurate to say that they are religious holidays that happen to coincide with pagan holidays, and that our current culture has a tendency of blending traditions with different histories and ignoring the fact that some of them are Christian and others are pagan. And yes, in the case of Christmas, it’s true that our observance of the holiday probably doesn’t fall very close to the time of year when it actually took place. But that’s something of a tangent because I’m really just talking about Mardis Gras.

Mardis GrasMardis Gras is more or less unique in being a holiday that I dislike; in general, I am in favor of any reason to treat any day as being special, to use it as an excuse to celebrate, and to associate it with enjoyable traditions. Basically, my objection to Mardis Gras is that it takes away from the significance of the beginning of Lent. For all of the fuss that people make over Mardis Gras, Ash Wednesday gets so little attention that some people think it only exists in the Roman Catholic church. (As a Lutheran, I can’t help feeling a little indignant when people ask me if I’m Catholic.) I haven’t heard my classmates talking about Lent, but I’ve heard an awful lot about Mardis Gras and about the Mardis Gras parties that will ironically be held this weekend after Lent has already started. The only reason that I’ve even seen much talk about Lent on the internet is that I know a lot of cool people who post religious things online. Even then, I think I’ve seen a lot more Mardis Gras themed things.

Because I’m a little short on time, I’m not going to continue this blog post in the logical direction (which would be to say something about Lent) and I’m also not going to try to justify the fact that I actually do like Halloween, which is also a secular holiday that was originally observed as the day before a religious holiday. I don’t think I really need to justify that anyway, because this really is just my opinion; I’m not trying to make any kind of moral statement. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong about Mardis Gras, it’s just that I’m not used to observing it, so I am a little bit bothered by its cultural prominence. And also, if we’re going to celebrate it, we really ought to assign a certain color of jello to it. I’m voting for yellow.