Ideas for Lent: Fasting, Prayer, & Generosity

The Lent tradition began in the 3rd-century and is a 40-day season of meditation and repentance building to Easter celebration. Whether you are seeking, seasoned, or deconstructed, Lent is a perfect time to let God shape your life in new ways.

Historically, Christians have used three broad categories of practices to engage in this season: fasting, prayer, and generosity.

These practices are external means for shaping one’s internal soul and life. Fasting removes things to create space in your heart and life, prayer is a way to fill that interior space, and generosity is giving out of the overflow we trust is there.

Below, you’ll find ideas for how you can incorporate these into your Lent. Pick one, or several. The important thing is to try for consistency, and use times of frustration or faltering as a chance to meditate on your limitations and how God meets you there.

Fasting

Fasting is neither a diet nor a “detox” from something your life. Going without normal, good things for a time reveals to us why we turn to them so much and just how strong our desire is for them. As we refrain and limit ourselves, we feel discomfort or unmet desire and we use those moments to turn our minds to God. We are supposed to feel weaker than normal, as this brings humility and awareness of our mortality and frailty.

Common Fasts

If you’ve never given something up for Lent or this feels a little daunting, these common Lenten fasts might be a good place to start. It’s better to just do something rather than nothing:

  • Sweets
  • Meat
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Social media
  • Cursing
  • Podcasts and/or news (or just politics altogether)
  • A particular game or app
  • A favorite TV show, or TV after a certain time
  • Jaywalking

Creative Fasts

  • Give up your snooze button: make yourself get up with your alarm.
  • If you listen to audiobooks or podcasts at a sped up rate, slow it down to 1x speed, or slower.
  • Turn your phone screen black-and-white (it’s easy).
  • See how few apps you can use. Uninstall, hide, or disable as many apps as you can and don’t use them through Lent.
  • Starve the quantified self. Don’t track your calories, sleep, steps, or any of the other metrics we use for some sense of control.
  • Give up your late nights: no getting to bed after midnight.
  • Only eat out with others, not by yourself.
  • Give up unnecessarily defending yourself–even if you’re ultimately “right” (yes, this can be taken too far. It’s meant to combat our obsession with our own reputations, but be wise and safe.)
  • Fast from all media intake (TV, movies, music, books, podcasts, etc) that is not by minorities or some other marginalized group.
  • Fast from all non-essential trash and waste. Only use re-usable things and try and get as close to zero-waste as possible.
  • Don’t take your phone with you into the bathroom. (This is way harder than you think.)

Deeper Fasts

However great those ideas are, there is still a deeper dimension to fasting they don’t quite get at. Each is still technically a luxury. One can go without those things and–after a few days–get somewhat used to it. Another level of fasting, then, is to experience a fast in more basic, everyday aspects of life. I’ve not done any of these, but I trust they would be fruitful to those who try.

  • Fast from all food but water on one or two days a week, or only eat what you need to survive.
  • Make water your only beverage through the entire Lent season.
  • Take short, cold showers or set your thermostat colder throughout Lent.
  • Turn off all screens (or even all electronics–including artificial light) after a certain time in the evening.
  • Exercise with extra intensity.
  • Abstain from any purchases of material goods that are not absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t add seasonings to your food, including salt–even while cooking.
  • Give up music with words, or music entirely.
  • Fast from cars during Lent (even Uber), and only walk or take public transit.
  • Make Scripture the only text you take time to read–no news, books, social media, etc.

Prayer

Prayer is most often characterized as “talking with God”. But there is a strand through the Scriptures and Christian history that sees prayer as more than conversational spiritual engagement and petition.

Prayer can be a life posture–an awareness of God and a maintaining of connection with God’s Spirit in you. It can be the repeating of structured liturgical prayers, speaking short prayers over and over again, or most profoundly and deeply (as the mystics teach us) sitting in periods of deep and complete silence, with no actual mental content or words passing between you and God–just communing. Here are some ideas and tips for praying during Lent:

My church offers daily morning and evening prayer that will guide you in prayer, Scripture, and confession. Also, Biola University’s amazing Lent Project gives reflections, art, and meditation through the season.

Schedule your prayer. Determine the time, place, and even ambiance (lighting, seating location, posture, smell, noise, etc.). Try and stick with it. If you miss some days, that’s fine. Just pick it up when you can.

Keep a journal. This affects a different part of your brain than reading, thinking, and spoken prayer, and is a small way to embody prayer. It is also something you can look back on in the future.

Sustained, regular periods of silence. This is hard, but worth it. Science says it takes about 12 continuous minutes before our brains experience the benefits of meditation, so aim for that. But don’t feel bad if you need to start with 5. Here’s a book that can help.

Doing things in a mindful, prayerful way. Pick a short prayer you can repeat mentally or under your breath as you do everyday activities—commuting, showering, changing diapers, doing dishes. The most common prayers Christians have used are “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or just the name Jesus. As you do this, see where God shows up: an emotion, an inspiration, or in a metaphor with what’s around you.

Surround yourself with things that facilitate this type of awareness:

  • Read books that get you in that mindset. Each Lent, I pick a Cormac McCarthy novel to read. And this year, I will be reading J. Todd Billings’ The End of the Christian Life and using its free Lent guide to meditate on mortality and seeing God in it.
  • Listen to Christian, classical, or sacred music: there is my own Lent Playlist (Spotify // YouTube Music), Mozart’s Requiem, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Cool Hand Luke’s Of Man, or just search Spotify for “Lent” and you’ll find hundreds of options.
  • Print out pieces of art that inspire reflection or turn your focus to Christ, the Cross, human suffering, or your own mortality.
  • Watch media that keeps you in touch with your depths and brings your thoughts to God or the suffering of the world and your place in it (my favorites would be any film by Terrence Malick and the TV show The Leftovers).
  • Pick a candle, essential oil, or incense that inspires reflection and slowing down (not, for instance, a bright, fruity scent).

Use outside guidance, both in text and audio. Sometimes we just don’t know what to say when we sit down to pray. Trying to think of what to pray is hard, and silence is even harder. But Christians have always used the prayers and guidance of others to help with this, namely in three ways:

  • Liturgy: I don’t mean the content of what’s prayed, but a basic, consistent structure that you fill in. It can be as simple as the ACTS method–Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication–or this popular method of praying for an hour in 5-minute chunks. Google for more.
  • Daily Offices: This is prayer that is almost entirely written out for you. The Book of Common Prayer does this and you can easily use it at Mission St. Clare. Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours series is also great. And there are audio resources! I use the app Hallow and the Divine Office podcast, though Pray As You Go is a really good and popular option–they even have Lent-specific “audio retreats”.
  • Devotionals & Praying Scripture: Another technique is to read something and use it as a launching pad for prayer. Use a Psalm and go one verse at a time, praying with the themes or content of that verse, and then move to the next. You can also use one of many Lent devotionals out there. You read a reflection, quote, or piece of poetry and then pray based on what it inspires in you. I have particularly enjoyed Chuck DeGroat’s Falling Into Goodness, Malcolm Guite’s Word in the Wilderness, and Brian Zahn’s The Unvarnished Jesus.

Generosity

Generosity is often experienced as a result and overflow from the shaping of other practices. I know it’s hard to “do generosity” in a way that doesn’t at times feel rote, forced, inauthentic, less than we could do, or wrongly-motivated.

But still, our embodiment matters. Even as we recognize or are implicitly aware of our mixed motives in certain actions, I think if we wait until we have the “correct” inner state before we move into these things, we’re likely never to do them.

So with that being said, here are some ideas for embodying generosity, even as we recognize there’s much work to be done in our hearts to free us from materialism, selfishness, and closed-heartedness.

Communal

  • Find opportunities for service in a local congregation. This is a time when many religious organizations have different endeavors going on.
  • Connect with your neighborhood’s community development corporation and see what ways you and others might care for your area. There are often frequent volunteer activities, including tutoring and street cleaning. (Or just clean up your block on your own.)
  • Commit to learning the name of and giving to every single panhandler that asks you for help. (This also means thinking ahead and always having cash on you).
  • Similarly, I had friends years ago that, for every meal they ate, they only ate half and gave the other half to someone they came across in need.
  • This may feel unjust or unfair, but consider coming to work 15 minutes early and staying 15 minutes later to give your organization more of your time, effort, and work for no extra compensation. (By the way, sit with how this feels and maybe explore what your roadblock to this might mean?)

Personal

  • Each week donate money to a different organization
  • Have a “Lent of Yes”, where you say yes to any request made of you (within reason). If a coworker asks you to do a favor, if a friend asks for help moving, or if someone wants to do a different activity, then say yes without complaint.
  • Every week (or day!) give away unnecessary items in your house and life. You can use traditional places like thrift stores or online communities like Buy Nothing to do so.
  • Similarly, commit to not buying any material possession for the entirety of Lent. Try and end Lent with less stuff than you began it.
  • In fact, you can fast from spending money unnecessarily on yourself entirely and only doing so when you can also (or only) spend it on others. Or, whenever you buy something, buy two to share.
  • Extend a more generous spirit to yourself. Within reason, let yourself off the hook for things that often drag you into shame and self-criticism. Also take time in a journal, in prayer, or in therapy to identify things in you it your past which you might need to extend forgiveness to yourself for.

Relational

  • Apologize for past wrongs you may have done to others (actually reach out to these people, unless doing so would cause harm). Express forgiveness to others that have wronged you. Do both with no expectation on the other person.
  • If possible, take what you’re fasting from and give it to others. Fasting from coffee? Buy a box of coffee for your coworkers. Meat? Give a neighbor a roast. You get the idea.
  • At a food or coffee shop, offer to pay for whatever the person behind you in line is getting.
  • Think of those people in your life, past, or community that you know are lonely are marginalized. They may be mentally ill, of a lower economic status, or just awkward. Give your time and attention to them–and substantively so. No tokenism, but real intentional time and service.
  • Only eat out when you can pay for someone else eating with you. Otherwise, don’t eat out alone and only cook at home.
  • Babysit for a couple in your community (religious or otherwise) who you know have not had a night out together on their own for quite a while.
  • Commit to affirming someone you know every day of Lent in specific, substantive ways.