Beyond White Knuckling: The Transformative Benefits of Lent

It’s easy to think of Lent in an entirely wrong way.

We think of fasting as a fight against our human nature. We add new prayers, which are a burden to us. We fast from our true desires and fight hard to give them up. We have to remember to give something to the poor — pennies, usually, in the rice bowl.

There is another way. What if your human nature is not something you have to fight against, but something very good that prayer, fasting, and almsgiving uncover?

Here’s a new way to think of each.

Lenten prayer gives you the energizing feeling of knowing you have a purpose in life.

In his 2020 Lenten message, Pope Francis says, “We need to pray because we need God. Thinking that we need nothing other than ourselves is a dangerous illusion.”

Anyone who has fallen in love knows exactly what he is talking about. Falling in love immediately replaces the thought, “I’m alone and that’s fine,” with the knowledge, “We are together, and that must be.” Being loved by someone makes colors brighter, it makes music better, it makes drab days bright and bright days better — because it gives them all a purpose greater than myself.

Being “in love” with God means even more. As Bishop Robert Barron points out, God is not another thing among many in the world, he is the meaning and purpose of everything that exists in the world. Because he is outside of time, creation is not a past event for him; he is creating everything right now.

God is present in all things by “essence, presence, and power,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas — directing everything, holding everything, and enabling everything.

When you realize this, and connect with him in prayer, the whole world starts to be illuminated by God’s presence. You see his beauty in a blade of grass, his goodness in the smile of a friend, and his truth in everything that happens. You gain the ability to accept small victories without pride, and to withstand defeats, and even tragedies, without being afraid.

That’s what Lenten prayer does.

Lenten fasting isn’t about limiting your freedom, it is about making your will flexible enough to do what you truly want.

“Let us not grow tired of fighting against concupiscence, that weakness which induces to selfishness and all evil, and finds in the course of history a variety of ways to lure men and women into sin,” Pope Francis said in his Lenten address for 2020.

We tend to think that fasting means depriving ourselves, and we look forward to Easter when we can indulge in the things we like once again.

But our wills aren’t choosing what’s best for us unerringly. “Concupiscence” means our wills are often like a 3-year-old’s, demanding we give our appetite what it wants, good or bad, right now. 

Fasting exercises your will to make it more flexible and that gives you the joys of freedom:

  • freedom from being impatient with time spent with others because you want to get away and be alone with your addiction
  • freedom from getting bored with your kids and watching YouTube instead
  • freedom from social media addiction, which interrupts everything we do to make it into a post
  • freedom from lacking confidence in public if you haven’t had a drink
  • freedom from worrying about the debt load you keep piling higher and higher
  • freedom from the weariness that comes from late night binges of shows or video games.

Fasting allows you to choose who you are going to be, instead of giving in to what your body demands.

Lenten almsgiving, then, becomes more than pennies in a rice bowl.

Pope Francis made the “almsgiving” Lenten task the center of his message, meditating on St. Paul’s words to the Galatians: “Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest.”

Almsgiving becomes “sowing goodness,” Pope Francis said, and it is not “a burden but a grace, whereby the Creator wishes us to be actively united with his own bountiful goodness.”

Pope Francis counts the blessings of giving. Giving to others:

  • “frees us from narrow self-interest”
  • “infuses our actions with graciousness”
  • “elevates our vision” to see “treasure in heaven”
  • Replaces “bitter disappointment at shattered dreams” with hope that “soars on eagle’s wings.”
  • Gives us “a foretaste of the joy of the Kingdom of heaven.”

In short, prayer allows us to see God in all things, fasting allows us to choose God at all times, and almsgiving allows us to cooperate in God’s great work of grace.

Lent isn’t an exercise in white-knuckling as we fight against our natural instincts; it’s a graced time when we can finally connect with who we were made to be.

Lent gives me a more God-shaped soul in place of a more me-shaped God.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.