Abstinence and Abundance

Funny Easter Ecard: Let's resume everything we gave up for Lent without any newfound spiritual insights.One month ago it was Lent. I was coming to the end of my commitment to drink only tap water for forty days. Now it is Eastertide, a time of rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection. And as part of the celebration, I can drink anything I want. Orange juice, cranberry juice, two-buck Chuck, Newcastle brown ale, soy milk—it’s all there, just waiting to be enjoyed.

In the past, I’ve been suspicious of giving up things for Lent because I feared that it didn’t really promote spiritual growth. Instead, it seemed to be  just a temporary exercise in giving up some sin, excess, vice, or bad habit—only to return to it with a vengeance after Easter. Christ is risen: pass the high fructose corn syrup! So now that we are on the other side of the resurrection, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my Lenten fast. After a month, was there any lasting spiritual value in completing the Simple Living Challenge?

Actually, at least for this month, I have seen some valuable benefits. I’m still much more conscious of those without clean water, and was inspired to do something about it. So far, the habit of turning to a glass of water when I’m thirsty still endures. I’m spending less on expensive and unhealthy drinks.

But most importantly, I think I gained a firmer grasp of the role of abstinence in cultivating a lifestyle of abundance. Here’s what I mean:  although am more content just drinking tap water, when I do decide to enjoy something else—like a simple glass of orange juice—it’s SO AWESOME! After 40 days of only water, when I take a swallow of that golden liquid with extra pulp, it tastes like the nectar of the gods.

About a month ago, another kind of “Lent” also came to an end for me. After almost three years in Central America, I moved back to my home state of California. Instead of being an immigrant in a country not my own, I am now surrounded by familiar friends, tranquil places to think and work, an abundance of wonderful food from all around the world, and (thanks to Amazon) any consumer good I could want delivered right to my door for about half of what it would cost in Costa Rica.

Before my time abroad, I took all this stuff for granted—it was just part of my birthright as a middle-class American. None of these things are especially luxurious by American standards. But now it feels like the tremendous wealth it is. Because of three years of abstinence, everything seems so abundant.

Yet I know that soon the wonder will wear off. After about the fifth time I eat a taco truck burrito or a Vietnamese sandwich, I’ll still enjoy it, but it will no longer seem like such a feast. The glories of being able to flush toilet paper will cease. Such novelties will wane, and the impulse to get MORE stuff and BETTER stuff will grow stronger. Contentment will fade and covetousness will follow.

Obviously, this is a familiar pattern: getting bored with what we have, and then wanting something better. We expect and need to be constantly “better off” as our life progresses. It seems to me that there are at least two possible responses to this phenomenon. The default is to take the well-travelled path of the American Dream, centering our lives around the pursuit of more, slowly strangulating our desire for the simple, generous lifestyle to which Jesus calls us.

But there is also another approach. We can allow our lives to be guided by the historic rhythms of the church, in which time undulates between seasons of feasting and fasting, abstinence and abundance, Lent and Easter. In this model, when we become bored of food or drink or cars or other stuff, instead of trading them in for something better, we fast from some of these things for a time, so when we return to them, it is with a new sense of appreciation and abundance. At least I think that’s what I appreciate about my recent experiences of Lent.  It seems trite to say it, but I now believe just a little bit more that true abundance is found in wanting what I have instead of getting what I want.

How about you? Anyone want to share the long-term impact of your Lenten practice?

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7 thoughts on “Abstinence and Abundance

  1. I feel like periodic detox periods help to keep the cycle of “more and more” in check for me, whether its sugar or buying new stuff or drinking only water. Since I’m unlikely to ever live in a 3rd world country again, periodic abstinence helps me continually appreciate the life I have or point out the luxuries that I don’t care about. Turns out, without coffee in the mix, I really don’t care at all about non water beverages.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, but I struggle with the question of “abundance.” Clearly there is a central role in the Bible for celebration, fellowship, and joy, but I wonder how much Jesus is comfortable with the absolute levels of abundance that we enjoy today – and the question of when what we have, own, and consume is “too much”? Our rhythms may follow a relative undulation between abstinence and abundance, but if the absolute level remains greatly abundant, are we missing a part of Jesus’ calling for our lives?

    • Thanks for underlining this point, Yi-An. I absolutely agree. I think there is an incredibly powerful temptation to spiritualize and justify our selfish consumerism by redefining it as the “abundant life” God has for us. The prosperity gospel represents this in its most brazen and unapologetic form, while most of us probably do it in a much more subtle and unexamined way.

      But the difficulty, as you say, is to discern what is innocent, joyful abundance (like, for me, an occasional glass of orange juice or a walk in a safe, tranquil public park) and what is spiritualizing greed.

      How do you make this distinction in your own life?

  3. Thanks for this post! I really appreciated the insight about the rhythms and cycles of the church calendar and how that helps prevent us from not always wanting more.

  4. For myself at least, I’ve found a pretty regular correlation between the number of people in my apartment and how much I want more material things and nicer foods. I’ve fluctuated between 4, 6, 2, 3, and 5 people now in my apartment, and I’ve noticed that when there’s less people in my apartment, I tend to want more stuff. When there’s more people, I just want to get rid of stuff.

    Right now one of the 5 roommates is a 2 year old, and I find that one of the highlights of my week is when my wife is having a prayer meeting with her friends in the living room. This means she’s out of the study, which we share, and it’s night time, so the 2 year old is sleeping so it’s quiet. I grab a plate of bulk corn chips with melted bulk mozzarella cheese (both ridiculously cheap stuff), close the door to the study to keep everyone out, and watch 40 minutes of FX’s Justified on Hulu, uninterrupted all by myself. With so many people and so much stuff in my apartment, and a 6th roommate arriving soon, I spend all my time daydreaming about how to get rid of stuff and how to be alone.

    When there were only 3, I found myself trying to fill spaces–both emotional and physical, with buying things and eating things, and trying to figure out how to be around people.

    In the end, I think I find that for me, small spaces and living near lots of friends makes it easy for me to live cheaply and simply. Which leads me to be a little frustrated that I wasted so much energy in the past trying to force myself to live simply and fight materialism in my life, when in the end, I find that just confining my sqft’age and living in community naturally satiates my carnal urges.

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