There is a paradox about Lent which actually clings to the whole business of asceticism. We give stuff up for Lent, things which we enjoy or things we know are harmful to our spiritual well being -or both. We do this for a number of of reasons, such as to implant a reminder of God''s presence into each day; or to make a genuine start on that simpler lifestyle we have been putting off 'til tomorrow since 1997. Mostly though, the discipline of Lent is an aid to weakening the hold of our egos. Jesus said, If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mtt 16:24) In other words, to follow Jesus we must forsake the control our egos have over our lives and allow Jesus to have control of our daily actions and decisions. It's a big ask, but saying "no" to the chocolate biscuits for six weeks will be just the help we need to make a start on it, right?
Well, maybe. There is the small matter of that pesky paradox. The act of giving something up in order to diminish our ego is actually quite likely to strengthen it instead. Our noble tilt at tobacco or fat is a tiny version of the sad ego game played by anorexics. The deadly tyranny of the anorexic's ego has persuaded her that her "noble" "disciplined" dieting is something that makes her purer and stronger than the rest of us poor flabby weaklings. Even as she slowly starves herself to death, she feeds her damaged ego, and this is what makes the disease so difficult to fight. To give up the disorder requires massive inner work. Similarly, on a much smaller scale, we fight our temporary nemesis and win (woohoo!) and feel a surge of righteous achievement. Our ego emerges a little stronger than it was before.
Lent is a preparation time for our understanding of the one who loves us unconditionally. Unconditional love cannot be controlled - not by the lover, not by the loved. It pours out regardless of whatever meets it, good or bad. Our Lenten fast will fail in its intended purpose if it is in the slightest way an exercise in trying to control God's love for us. That is, if we are trying to make ourselves more acceptable to God (and thus more loveable) or to persuade God to open the taps of love a little wider our Lenten fast is well into tits on a bull territory.
When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me said Paul. What is required of us is not small sacrifices of pastry or TV programming but a complete surrender of anything that seeks control; even, or perhaps particularly, those things we are secretly quite proud of. The church has long recognised that some disciplines help us to achieve this. It is appropriate in Lent to remember the magnitude of what is required of us and perhaps strengthen our practice of some of those disciplines. But if our Lenten fasts don't move us towards the total giving of ourselves they are worse than useless. Give them up.