This week, I’ve heard the question of “what are you giving up for Lent this year?” pop up in more conversations than I can count, from Christians and non-Christians alike. Many think that Lent is a self-improvement period akin to New Year’s. For others, giving up something they enjoy has become a mundane obligation, fraught with comparisons of one person’s sacrifice to another’s. However, Lent is meant to be a time to offer the depths of ourselves to God. To recognize our humility before Him as sinners, and turn to Him in repentance; “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). To deny ourselves, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). To give others more than they ask of us, and love without reserve (Matthew 5:40–42). Since the beginning of Lent marks 40 days from Easter, Christians spend these six weeks in special reflection on the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for our sins, imitating His offering with small ones of our own.

The Temptations in the Garden and the Desert

Lent is marked by self-denial, devotion, and charity in preparation for Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. We are also called to imitate (albeit to a lesser degree) Christ’s 40-day fast before His temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11). This is a stunning moment in salvation history, as it has directly redemptive parallels to Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Additionally, the hallmarks of Lent (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) are meant to strengthen us against those very three temptations from the garden and the desert that we continue to face in our daily lives.

The original sin was committed when Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” and she and Adam ate from it (Genesis 3:6). These three features of temptation encompass the root of all the sin we wrestle with today, as the beloved disciple John explains in his second letter:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world
 —1 John 2:15–16

Being ‘good for food’ is equated with fulfilling the physical desires—lust of the flesh; being a ‘delight to the eyes’ is associated with a disobedient curiosity—lust of the eyes; and being desirable to make one wise reflects greed and self-exaltation—the pride of life. 

When Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness and fasts for forty days and forty nights, we find that the devil introduces three temptations very similar to those for Adam and Eve. Jesus is tempted by the lust of the flesh to satiate His hunger: “‘if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But He answered, ‘It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:3-4).

Then the devil sets Him on the pinnacle of the temple saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘“He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone”’ (Matthew 4:5-6). Here He is tempted by the lust of the eyes, to question His identity as Son and perform a miracle for sensationalism, according to the devil’s will rather than the Father’s. Jesus responds, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” resisting the tempter, “for to do the miracle, would only have been to seem either to have yielded, or to have done it from curiosity” (Matthew 4:7, St. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John). 

The third temptation Jesus faced was the pride of life, as the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). In his homily on First John, St. Augustine reflects that Jesus’ response was a model for what our response should be against temptation; “it is, written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’ Holding these things fast…neither shall the lust of the flesh, nor the lust of the eyes, nor the pride of life, subjugate you: and you shall make place for Charity when she comes, that you may love God. Because if love of the world be there, love of God will not be there.”

The Pillars of Lent

Earlier we mentioned that the three pillars of Lent (fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) are strengthening forces against the three temptations of loving the world as described in 1 John 2. John writes that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever”(1 John 2:17). Each pillar of Lent seeks to purify us and help us shed worldly loves and attachments, that God might be all in all within our hearts.


Fasting is the act of abstaining from natural and ordered worldly desires like food, so that in strengthening our will against these, we may be all the more equipped to resist disorderly lust of the flesh. Jesus fasted and conquered the very temptations which Adam and Eve, indulging in food, failed to resist. Irrespective of whether one observes Lent, fasting is not optional for the Christian. Jesus did not say “if you fast,” but rather, “when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16–18). 

Moreover, fasting for forty days like we do in Lent has a special biblical significance:

This number, then, is a sign of that laborious period in which, under the discipline of Christ the King, we have to fight against the devil, is also indicated by the fact that both the law and the prophets solemnized a fast of forty days—that is to say, a humbling of the soul—in the person of Moses and Elijah, who fasted each for a space of forty days. And what else does the Gospel narrative shadow forth under the fast of the Lord Himself, during which forty days He was also tempted of the devil…After the resurrection also, it was His will to remain with His disciples on the earth not longer than forty days…all this was done with the view of signifying to them through these forty days, that although His presence should be hidden from their eyes, He would yet fulfill what He promised when He said, ‘Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the world.

—St. Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels

Many Christians practice fasting differently. In Catholicism, general fasting during Lent is coupled with abstinence from meat on Fridays, since that is the day the Lord gave His flesh for us. For the Lenten fast, some people choose to give up meat during the entire 40 days…others renounce eating before 3pm (the hour of the Lord’s death), or sweets, movies, any unnecessary internet use, social media…the goal is not to be dramatic, but honest (it should be a sacrifice) and consistent. As we see in Jesus’ fast and many others in the Bible, there is also something very valuable about fasting from food specifically, for every pang of discomfort unites the mind to God. The intensity of our physical hunger and thirst should constantly remind us of the degree to which we should hunger and thirst for righteousness, which is our source of eternal satisfaction (Matthew 5:6). 

Fasting in itself is not a virtue, for that would imply that eating food is intrinsically unvirtuous. The practice of fasting and abstinence in no way implies that food is not good, as this directly contradicts God’s teachings (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Rather, in accordance with the counsel of Jesus, fasting exercises self-control and temperance like a muscle. This is why St. Paul exhorts us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”; he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life, but warning us against self indulgence  (Romans 13:14).

‘So fight I, not as one that beats the air, but I chastise my body and bring it into subjection’ (1 Corinthians 9:27) This properly has to do with the pains of abstinence, and bodily fasting and affliction of the flesh: he has gained a battle triumph by mortifying his own body; for when it is chastised with the blows of continence and struck down with the boxing-gloves of fasting, he has secured for his victorious spirit the crown of immortality and the prize of incorruption.

—St. John Cassian


Giving alms calls for a detachment from that which we have in excess. Almsgiving is different than tithing; it does not refer to our first fruits, but rather our last fruits, giving to God that which He has given you an abundance of. Almsgiving calls us to be lowly and share liberally, a beautiful counter to lust of the eyes, which is marked by inordinate possession and performance.

Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh. He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As he says, ‘Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to me’.

—St. Augustine

The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.

—St. Basil the Great


Prayer is divine communion, the raising of one’s mind and heart to the thrice-holy God, and at times requesting good things of Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a convicting reflection on prayer: “Prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy. But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. ‘Man is a beggar before God’”(CCC, 2558-9). Thus, prayer inspires humility to combat the pride of life, as it cultivates within us childlike love, obedience, and submission before God.

Most kind Jesus, grant me Your grace, I pray; let it dwell in me, work in me, (Wisdom 9:10) and abide in me to the end. Let me ever will and not will in union with Yourself, and be unable to will otherwise than You will or do not will. Grant that I may die to all things in this world, and for Your sake love to be despised and unknown. Grant me, above all else, to rest in You, that my heart may find its peace in You alone; for outside Yourself all is hard and restless.  Amen.

—Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

If Lent is something new to you, I encourage you to take some time in prayer to meditate on these pillars and the fasting, temptation, suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Ask if God desires for you to offer a humble sacrifice during these forty days as you look forward to Holy Week.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster..
— Joel  2:12–13

 (1) Sundays, being the new Sabbath, are always considered a day of rest and rejoicing of the Lord’s resurrection and victory, and thus are not included as days of penance during the season of Lent
(2)  Lent is not recognized universally by Christians, but it has been observed by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church for centuries, is mentioned explicitly in the First Council of Nicea (325 AD), and has appeared implicitly in many Church writings before that. It is still observed in many Protestant denominations today, with varying adherences to traditional practices of fasting, etc.
(3) The specific observance of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving during Lent differs across Christian traditions. Catholicism is the most explicit regarding “pillars” of Lent as mentioned.

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