Don’t treat Lent as a spiritual quick fix

Lent should be about more than ostentatious rituals or programs of self-improvement.
Our Faith

Our kids yelled at us on Ash Wednesday about not wanting to go to church: They loathed the gritty feel as the ashes were smudged on their skin, the residue they left, the peculiarity of the ritual. 

“Lent is so stupid anyway!” our 8-year-old argued. “All it’s about is forcing you to give up something!” 

“You don’t have to give up anything,” I said, ruing the soggy fish sticks I’d eaten on Fridays as a child because I wasn’t allowed to eat meat. “That’s not what it’s about.” 

Jesus went into that desert and up that mountain to try to get closer to God. He turned away from the temptations of the world by turning to a source of infallible love. During Lent, he invites us to follow him. 


It may be easier to eat the occasional fish stick than to pray constantly, give generously, and fast from the things that distract us from being more fully the people we were made to be. But what Jesus did isn’t easy. God calls us to use our gifts to love and serve others, and we pray, give alms, and fast in Lent to practice living and loving like Jesus did.

A friend’s leader at work always prioritized what they called “quick wins,” meaning a cute bit of curated content—something short and sweet to garner likes, clicks, comments, and shares. An easy way to chalk up a few more points on the metrics scoreboard and quantify their team’s worth for the power-brokers. 

So much of our culture today is built on a similar framework. We want to be thin without doing the work to be fit. We want to earn more without having to actually go to work. We want a pill that makes the problem go away, when addressing the problem more than likely requires not only a pill but also dedicated lifestyle change. 

We’ve even found ways to make spirituality about quick wins. What are we giving up for Lent? Coffee, alcohol, chocolate, lunches out, social media, meat on Fridays (unless it’s St. Patrick’s Day, then please pass the corned beef!). 


We can choose to make a punchy headline out of our Lenten sacrifice—define a specific food or pleasure to deny ourselves, point to this one thing we can do to measure and demonstrate progress and success over a relatively short time frame. We can make an outward show of how closely we’re hewing to liturgical living and see how many likes, clicks, comments, and shares we garner. But true liturgical living is not about any cute headline or external ritual. It’s not even about getting ashes on our foreheads or eating fish on Fridays. 

Lent isn’t a crash diet. It’s a crash course in kickstarting transformative change in our collective hearts and in reorienting our lives in preparation for the resurrection. Instead of how our sacrifice in Lent serves us individually, Lent asks us to make internal changes that keep us more deeply connected with our community and more focused on how we can better care for others. This is the chief responsibility we have, according to the gospel. We are here to love each other. That’s what Jesus did, and we find him by doing the same. Our responsibility isn’t to make our lives more comfortable; it’s to extend what we have to others so that we can all live in a more just, peaceful, loving, and comfortable world. 

There is suffering in the world, and there are many people who have so little and need so much. God asks us to get better over these 40 days at addressing that suffering; to practice dying to ourselves so that we can turn our attention to loving others. Especially if we have the resources and gifts to do so, God wants us in Lent to work on alleviating that suffering by loving our neighbors as ourselves, forgiving people and seeking forgiveness, by praying, fasting, and almsgiving—all of which require commitment to serving a greater good. 

Jesus tells us: “Be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).


Perfection—no doubt a tall order—could be defined in many ways: for example, cultivating and selling a “perfect” image or following the liturgical calendar religiously. The “quick win,” influencer culture we live in is so often about projecting the perfect surface. 

This is not the kind of perfection, however, that Jesus is challenging us to aspire to. God doesn’t care about any superficial image we’re selling. God cares about what we’re freely giving and how we’re working in community to improve the lives of people who are less fortunate. 

This requires a complete conversion of our hearts. It’s radical and wild. Achieving conversion—like achieving most things worth achieving—is hard work, time-consuming, and inconvenient. It’s pushing back and it’s plowing forward in the face of adversity and in the face of temptations to give up. 

This kind of sacrifice isn’t for our individual glory; it’s for God’s glory. It’s not about self-congratulation or even about feeling better about ourselves—how we look or feel. Nor is it designed to make us unduly suffer or feel ashamed. God loves us and isn’t going to rap our knuckles or send us to the corner if we fall short. 


“If God is so good and cares about us so much, then why is God so selfish?” our 8-year-old asked. “Why is God obsessed with being glorified?” 

“That’s a great question. I can’t answer it,” I said. “Maybe glorifying God is just a way of saying I’m doing the best I can. That’s all I think God wants. God wants us to be the best we can be and help others.” 


In glorifying God, the goal isn’t boosting God’s ego. It isn’t putting our church on a pedestal. Nor is it making a show of our faith. God instead is inviting us to change our perspectives and convert our hearts to a framework in which caring for each other comes first, and especially caring for those who are most in need.

That is where we encounter Jesus. After all, he didn’t stay in the desert, and he didn’t set up camp with his friends on the mountain. He led them back down into the world with its broken politics and people, with its yelling and perpetually (God bless them) questioning children, with its imperfect brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and parents, with its lepers and prostitutes and Pharisees, with its poverty and homelessness, with its false idols and distractions and traitors and loads of suffering. 


Into this chaos, Jesus returned, and he spread the good news. He loved us all so much he ultimately died for us so that he—and we—could be reborn. That’s the perfection God is calling us to seek this Lent: perfection that dies to the self so that it can rise to a new life free from fear, sustained by joy, and directed toward glorifying God in all things, at all times, by using our gifts to the best of our abilities to serve those most in need. 

It’s not a fish stick. It’s not a quick win. It’s a long, slow, hard-earned resurrection, one we can all rejoice in together. 

Image: Pexels/Anete Lusina

About the author

Emily Dagostino

Emily Dagostino is a writer living in Oak Park, Illinois. Read more of her work at

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