“I’m giving up God for Lent,” said the post on my social media feed.
I had to reread the line again while my brain did a bit of reorienting. Wasn’t the person who posted this a Christian?
For some believers, the argument goes like this: By intentionally “giving up” God for a season, we give ourselves the chance to put to death any inaccurate idols we may have unintentionally created out of him.
Engaging in this practice, they argue, allows us the chance to see what life would be like without God—and that, in turn, should make us want to draw closer to him. The principle goes that by choosing to lean away from God and depriving ourselves of his presence, we can learn His true value in our lives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this practice is also promoted by atheist philosopher Peter Rollins, who is offering an online course called ‘Atheism For Lent’—aiming to critique theism and set aside “questions regarding life after death to explore the possibility of life before death.”
As a native and resident of the Bay Area in California, none of this is shocking to me. But what’s intriguing to me after searching online is that so many Christians, and even some churches, are intentionally engaging in this practice as a form of spiritual formation.
My question is this: Aren’t most Christians already “giving up God” in their daily lives?
Many of us are living our day-to-day existence without reference to the Lord instead of involving him in the day-to-day choices and decisions we make. Some have called this “functional atheism,” which I find a fitting phrase. Parker Palmer defines this concept as “the unexamined conviction within us that if anything decent is going to happen here, I am the one who needs to make it happen.”
I see this all the time here in the Bay Area, where we have almost everything at our fingertips. We have access to astronomical amounts of data, excellent healthcare, and high-paying jobs—commonplace riches beyond the imagination of much of the world. These realities make it easier for us to feel no need for God and try to figure out life for ourselves.
I believe it’s the traditional Lent we truly need because of its ability to slowly unwrap our fingers from the steering wheel of our lives.
This isn’t just for the individual either. It’s especially important in certain modern church contexts where structured programs are key, the expected is expected, and the curveballs unsettle us deeply. Lent is a chance for the Church to allow a “holy disruption” into our communal rhythms. That disruption’s ultimate goal is getting us back to God as sovereign over all we do, including that which is done in our sacred spaces.
My story with Lent is relatively brief. It’s only in the past several years that I’ve felt convicted to press into the season in intentional ways.
One year, I followed the traditional Eastern Orthodox fast from food. It was challenging, changing my daily meal schedule and impacting what I ate. It also allowed my concept of Lent to move from my head to my heart. I went from a fully intellectual conception of faith to an embodied one.
This minor adjustment in what I was eating challenged my regular rhythms and heightened my sense of conviction about other habits in my life. It refined my senses and drew me closer to God. I realized how much I took God for granted, especially the goodness of His creation. I heard the constant refrain of the Doxology in my head: “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!” and finally gained deeper insight into what that line of praise means.
To this day, that season of Lent has had a lasting impact on me.
Instead of leaving God out of the process, involving him created an intimate, radically conscious dynamic of prayer throughout the day. Without God firmly at the center of that time, my Lenten fast would simply have been doing what one of my friends once called “a Christian diet season.”
For me, the difference between a diet and fast is ultimately about the orientation of our affections: Fasting relies on God to change us, while diets are programs we create on our own for a desired outcome. John speaks to this well in 1 John 2:15–16:
“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.”
A constant companion on my Lenten journey was Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom. Though in reference to prayer, his opening paragraph spoke into my fasting:
“We should think, rather, in terms of an increasing progression from depth to depth, from height to height, whichever formula you prefer, so that, at every step, we already possess something which is rich, which is deep, and yet always go on, longing for and moving toward something richer and deeper.”
What I discovered for the first time in my life was that forgoing a chocolate bar or a meal is not meant to create a void in us, but rather to invite God into the negative spaces our fasting has made. The idea is to seek further riches from God, not remove him from the process.
Lent is the process of asking our Father to be the all-in-all that we truly need in place of many things in our lives that numb us with comfort. Lent was allowing me to value God’s character, and to need His presence. Lent has always been about “giving up” those things that blocked us from him in the first place.
We don’t mind the verses where Jesus calls us to be a “good” or “better” person, but we sometimes forsake or forget the harder passages about camels and needles (Matt. 19:24) and lukewarm water (Rev. 3:15–16), the passages about suffering and being hated by the world (John 15:18) and repenting for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 3:2).
Lent is all about those passages because they speak of Christ’s call to surrender and sacrifice—and fasting implies our need to repent and recenter ourselves on him by denying the things of this world.
If some people want to try “giving up God” for one reason or another, that is their prerogative—but personally, I think it’s completely missing the point of Lent. Indeed, without God, there can be no Lent.
At the end of the day, Lent is about learning to ask ourselves whether we are living like Christians or functional atheists in our daily lives: Are we waking up and choosing Christ? Are we listening to the Spirit when we encounter someone in need? Are we caring for the least of these in our midst? Are we truly loving our enemies?
Lent is not a vibe intended to appeal to our aesthetic preferences or provide us with “emotional release.” Instead, it’s about sacrificing some of the small but illusory comforts of our modern lives to stay in daily alignment with God as our Creator, provider, and sustainer.
Nik Bartunek is a worship pastor and musician in the Silicon Valley Bay Area. He is passionate about the overlap of faith and culture, and also about Wizards and Elves.