Q: With Lent on its way, I never know how to choose a “thing.” Do you have any suggestions for how to pick something to do for Lent? That’s a great (and perennial) question. I have personally had a tough time choosing the right thing in the past. How does a person know what they should give up or take up when it comes to their Lenten discipline?

A: It might be helpful to spell out what the church envisions for us during Lent before we look at the specifics.

The church only asks for two particular disciplines from us: fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. As you might know, the church defines “fasting” in a very mild way: one full meal and two small meals that together are not larger than the one full meal. “Abstinence” simply refers to avoid meat. I wanted to note this because it is worth recognizing that the church does not actually require very much from us at all in this regard. If you think of it this way, a person in the United States could be fasting and still consume more food than most of the world does on a daily basis.

Because of this, we can see that the “key” to Lenten disciplines that the church offers us is not based on a degree of difficulty. There is a strange stereotype applied to Catholics that we are overly rigorous and driven by guilt and a belief that we have to earn a place in God’s heart. How far that is from the truth! And we can see this demonstrated in these Lenten requirements. They are so simple and undemanding that no one could ever honestly draw the conclusion that the Catholic Church is preoccupied with self-denial and strictness.

We can see that the church does not demand much from us during Lent. There is also the traditional practice of either “giving up” or “taking up” additional disciplines during this time. These disciplines are meant to be a way to deepen our faith, hope, and love in preparation for the renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter and our celebration of the Resurrection. In other words, they are meant to assist our deeper interior conversion (turning away from sin and becoming more like Jesus).

I invite you to embrace this particular vision when it comes to what you choose for your Lenten “thing.” What will help you the most to turn away from sin and become more like Jesus? Sometimes this involves giving something up (denying yourself a legitimate good in order to make space for Jesus), and sometimes it involves taking something up (adopting a spiritual practice that helps you grow closer to Christ and actively help those around you).

Notice this: The goal of the Lenten practice is not merely to “become more disciplined” or “do the really hard thing.”

When deciding what to do for Lent, many people find that they will either pick something that was too easy (and almost negligible and forgettable) or something so difficult that they ended up continually failing to live it out. Even if they did keep the discipline throughout Lent, it might have merely ended up being a “white knuckle” situation where they just held on as long as they could and the whole thing just ended up becoming a personal challenge of self-control that didn’t lead them any closer to becoming like Christ in any significant way.

This is what I believe about this tactic: The error most of us fall into when choosing something to do for Lent is not really either choosing something “too easy” or choosing something “too difficult.” There are times when the very best thing for a person to choose during Lent is very easy to accomplish, and there are times when the discipline will be very difficult. The key is to understand the difference between “arbitrary” and “necessary.”

The primary issue that most Catholics face when picking a Lenten discipline is that it bears no intrinsic impact on their life. They might give up sweets or snacking because it is what people do. They might decide to read the daily Mass readings each day because it is what they’ve done for the past few years. That’s not bad, but it doesn’t ask the question: What do I need? As long as the Lenten discipline does not arise from a real need in a person’s life, it will always have an optional and artificial character to it.

But when people truly begin to know themselves, they start to understand what is keeping them from drawing closer to Jesus. They begin to recognize the obstacles in their lives that make it difficult to hear and obey the voice of God. They begin to notice what has been fragmenting their attention and their hearts. And they begin to realize that real conversion is going to involve addressing these obstacles in a real way.

For example, there are a decent number of people who give up social media for Lent. That can be a very good thing. But it is not a good thing because it is difficult. It is a good thing for the people who have recognized that their attachment to social media is the obstacle that steals their time and attention away from allowing Jesus to be the Lord of their lives. They may have recognized that social media scatters their focus and robs them of the interior peace that Christ is calling them to. They might also have noticed that a preoccupation with social media is making it harder for them to be present to their family members or friends (or has become a way to avoid being present to their own thoughts and feelings!).

If they have arrived at this conclusion, they might also conclude that fasting from social media is no longer “optional” for them this Lent. It has become apparent that they need this particular fast. It is intrinsically connected to the vision that God has for them. By fasting in this way, they are doing something that is necessary and not merely arbitrary.

How about you this Lent? What are the obstacles that are present in your life that keep God at arm’s length? What are the things you could give up or take up that directly correlate to turning from sin and becoming like him?