Editor's note: The following column originally appeared on Crosswalk.com.
Some years ago my fiancee (now wife) and I found ourselves in a church full of people who observed Lent. With a wedding and honeymoon just a few months away, we had better plans.
We spent our extra money on a Caribbean cruise, while the spiritual pilgrims around us were freely giving their non-extra money to support persecuted Christians in Nigeria. I was, admittedly, on the “Look Good Naked” diet, renouncing sweets for the sake of vanity. They were on the Good Friday diet, fasting from food to dwell more closely with Jesus Christ. I was feeding my cravings. They were confessing their sins. I was more obligated, but they were more free.
After the luster of the cruise wore off, we decided to give Lent a try the following year. But I was still motivated by self-improvement and a fear of missing out. Several years later, it has taken some trial-and-error for me to learn the heart of Lent. Along the way, here are five reasons I’ve learned not to observe the season:
1. To slim your waistline.
Lent is not a season for weight loss. Yes, Lent involves a taming of the physical appetites. But the goal is to cultivate a spiritual hunger for God, not a slimmer physique.
If you turn Lent into a season of self-improvement, you’ll miss the greater vision of drawing close to Jesus Christ and becoming like him. Besides, lenten fasts and fish Fridays are ineffective methods of losing weight -- if that’s your goal, it’s better to try the Whole 30 diet and exercise three times a week.
2. To make God happy.
Sometimes I like to think I can control God, making him happy (or just less angry) simply by taking up the classic Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and generosity towards others.
At its heart, this is a "hunger strike" approach to God -- going without food to get the attention of the prison warden.
I’ve found out the hard way that God does not play along with that silly game. This will just leave us either proud or depressed: “Why have we fasted, and you see it not?” (Isaiah 58:3).
3. To cure an addiction.
While Lent is a great time to address the bodily cravings that have enslaved us, the spiritual journey will not cure addictions.
If you feel powerless to break a dependence on alcohol, sexual activity, gambling, drugs, overeating or any other vice, seek professional help from a licensed counselor and an addiction recovery program in your church or community.
The spiritual benefits of observing Lent with the people of God will be a support and encouragement as you walk the road of recovery.
4. To showcase your spirituality or virtue.
Let’s be honest: Most of us want to be admired for our virtue and recognized for our hard work. I know I do. But Lent is a time for us to seek a greater reward: the blessing of God the Father which is ours through the free gift of his Son Jesus.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” Jesus warned, “for then you will have no reward from your Father who is Heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
Whether we’re fasting, praying more regularly or giving our money to the poor, Jesus warns us against showcasing it for “likes.” By all means seek support for the journey, just don’t broadcast it for the ego-boost.
5. Because it’s the cool trend.
In all honesty, I fell hard for this one. I started practicing Lent because everyone at my new church observed the season. Increasing numbers of people from all walks of life are jumping on the Lent bandwagon. Maybe they are feeling far from God and want a tangible way to reignite their spirituality.Or perhaps they’re feeling adrift in the modern world and want to reconnect with ancient practices.
In any case, don’t join the herd out of a fear of missing out. The mystique will wear off faster than the dirt on your forehead from Ash Wednesday.
In the last 14 years of practicing Lent, my motives have been all over the place. But by God’s grace I’ve come to see that Lent is not a forced march of works-righteousness, but rather a joyful pilgrimage, even better than a cruise.
It’s been good medicine for my autonomy, self-indulgence, spiritual independence and the painful split between what I know about God and what I experience of him. At the end of the day, however, Lent is about Jesus -- becoming closer to him and becoming like him.
Aaron Damiani is the pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and the author of The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.