The Freedom of Self-Denial

One of the traditional Lenten practices is self-denial. Often this leaves us asking the question, “What should I give up for Lent?” The answers vary – candy, bread, wine, shopping, blogging…. We endure for God’s sake forty days of self-denial. We give up some ordinary thing or activity and with the celebration of Easter we reward ourselves with whatever thing or activity we had given up. How then has our life changed? It is almost as if our self-denial was just a period of time out. Children are sometimes put in time out when they have misbehaved. They are separated from their friends, toys, and usual activities – sitting on their bed or in the corner. After a short period of time they resume their normal activities. Surely Lent is more than the Church’s version of time out.

The risk of self-denial is that it becomes self-centered. Self-denial is not the goal or object of our Lenten journey. God is. Self-denial does not gain for us God’s approval. God does not necessarily need or want our Lenten disciplines. God wants us. Self-denial asks us to look at and let go of the ways, things, activities, and sometimes even the relationships that stand between us and God. This is not just for a season but for a lifetime.

I remember speaking with my spiritual director many years ago about what I should give up or do for Lent. I offered him my list of ideas. He said no to all of them – no fasting, no reading, no theological thinking, no journal writing. He asked me to just show up – to simply be present and listen. He did not call it self-denial but it was. I was to deny myself the need to be productive and busy. I was to let go of my need for answers, the safety of rational thought, and trust the silence. I would have to let go of being in control. Lent would not be done according to my list or agenda. Every one of these places of self-denial became an entry point for the risen Christ.

Ultimately, self-denial frees us to be who we truly are. Hear the insightful words of Alexander Elchaninov in The Diary of a Russian Priest:

Self-denial, which is so often mentioned in connection with the practice of Christianity, is conceived by some as an end in itself; they look upon it as the essential point of every Christian’s life.

But it is only a way and a means for achieving our end – the putting on of Christ.

Neither must we think, as others do – going to the opposite extreme – that self-denial means renouncing one’s personality, one’s own path, a sort of spiritual suicide. Quite the contrary: self-denial is liberation from the slavery of sin (without self-denial we are prisoners), and the free manifestation of our true essence as originally designed for us by God.



  1. For a number of years I would go without breakfast and lunch on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, having just a meatless dinner. There was a nice little Indian place within walking distance of our apartment where we’d go after the liturgy for vegetarian combos. By around 2 PM on those days I’d be obsessing about how good the Indian food was going to taste, and this would crowd out whatever spiritual work I was doing, or at least give it a good run for the money. Talk about self-denial leading to self-centerdness! I now eat moderately and without meat on both these days and all the Fridays of Lent.


  2. Katie, thank you for visiting. I hope you will return soon and begin or join a conversation.

    Moses, I appreciate your kind words. Thanks for looking in on my blog.

    Joe, I had to laugh when I read your comment and say, “Me too!” How wonderful though that our fasting failings were filled with grace and learning.

    Peace and a holy Lent to all, Mike


  3. Wow, it looks like you don’t have a followers list, but I love the first thing I read…..about not judging others. Are you okay if I borrow that for myself. That’s an awesome word of knowlegde and so true.

    Well, I hope you visit our blog and decide to follow us. And on the phrase I mention above, don’t judge by the ‘gamble song’….if you read the bottom of the post you’ll see the it was a Christian writing project which required us to post our blog for donations to the Christian site High Calling Blogs and ‘Card Gift Givers’, to give to the needy. Blessings, Sarah


  4. Okay, so what I did was added myself to be a subscriber of your site so I get email notifications. How cool is that?

    Thanks for letting me borrow from you; I always like to ask persmission first.

    Blessings to your this Lent as well!

    Jesse and Sarah


  5. Which aspect or function of ones body-mind-self (which is an indivisible seamless unity) is going to apply self-denial to which aspect or aspects of ones body-mind-self?


    1. Sue, thank you for your comment. I agree that the human person – body, mind, soul – is one.

      Self-denial is not so much about one aspect of our humanity fighting with another — that seems to be already happening within most of us. It is not about creating a civil war within but rather ending the civil war that is already being fought. I view self-denial as a means of reuniting and reconciling the original unity of our humanity – living more and more into the image and likeness of God.

      So self-denial then gets practiced with respect to thoughts, the passions (as described by the early church), addictions, attachments to things and people. It is a practice of letting go.

      It seems to me self-denial is the way we create space for God. How do you understand and practice self-denial?

      Peace, Mike


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