Practicing Restraint as Lenten Discipline
David Lott

Practicing Lenten disciplines has always been one of those spiritual activities from which I’ve shied away. Too often, when hearing friends tell me what they’re “giving up for Lent,” their intended sacrifices sound to me more like religiously shaded New Year’s resolutions than genuine vehicles for self-reflection, much less avenues for building intimacy with the divine through prayer and meditation. Certainly, stubborn bad habits can block one’s spiritual development, so there is merit in any concentrated effort to free oneself of such debilitating patterns, whether it ensues on January 1, Ash Wednesday, or any other day. It is just that our “fasts,” whether we give up chocolate or take a break from Facebook for the forty days of Lent, don’t always obviously connect with following Christ on his journey to the cross. Indeed, one might even say that many of our Lenten disciplines trivialize that larger practice and the theology that stands behind it.

The problem, perhaps, is that sacrifice does not necessarily signal actual practice. We place too much emphasis on what we are sacrificing, and direct too little attention to that which we may take up instead. After all, through our Lenten fasts, we are not simply creating a void that God then enters and magically fills. Rather, Lent calls us to take up something new into the space we have created through our letting go, most often through prayer and acts of charity. It beckons us to a certain self-forgetfulness, to seek something—someone—outside ourselves. Otherwise, these Lenten disciplines may simply become another form of self-indulgence: a demonstration of the strength of one’s own willpower rather than a true spiritual fast. Self-examination need not demand self-centeredness; instead, it can be an opportunity to expand our vision, to become more aware of our context and environment.

Skeptic though I am, during this past Lent I did participate in a spiritual discipline of sorts. I was immersed at the time in a large editorial project, reading through all of the books written by the theologian Sallie McFague for the purpose of selecting excerpts that I would then organize into a volume of collected readings. As a way of more deeply engaging with and understanding her theological project, I decided that during Lent I would make a concentrated effort to read the weekly lectionary texts through the lens of her thought. Such a project meant that I both let go of my usual (and often undisciplined) ways of reading and thinking about biblical texts—my Lenten sacrifice—and attempted to read those texts in this new way, shaped by the thought and approach of a specific theologian—my Lenten practice.

At first glance, McFague is not the likeliest of candidates to guide such Lenten reading. While she identifies as a Christian theologian as well as an Episcopalian, her work does not especially engage the work of churches and traditional practice. Indeed, she has said that she is more spiritually engaged and nurtured by hiking in nature than by participating in worship. But my research into her collected works revealed much that encouraged me to follow her in my Lenten practice. I found that in her earliest books, McFague examines the metaphorical aspects of theological language and offers a provocative biblical hermeneutic that is especially helpful in reading Jesus’ parables as extended metaphors. We were then in lectionary Year C, when the parables in Luke’s Gospel dominate the Lenten Sunday texts, and reading them through McFague’s lens proved to be an excellent spiritual practice. Indeed, her first major book, Speaking in Parables (1975), analyzes several of those very parables that appear during Lent. And so, Sallie McFague became my spiritual guide during Lent 2013.

Reading more deeply in McFague’s work I came to realize that her biblical hermeneutic is not the only way in which her theological thought might help Christians who are seeking new or different ways to engage in Lenten practices. Indeed, with each new book she has become increasingly interested in practice, and not simply theory. Coming to the forefront in her later books, as a logical extension of her metaphorical theology, are not only deepening ecological concerns but also a pointed critique of economic growth models that exacerbate environmental degradation and the suffering of all creation. These issues prompt her to ask how we might live “in God,” faced with the twin crises of ecological disaster and economic injustice.

McFague’s most recent book, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (2013), presents us with perhaps her most provocative ideas for rethinking how we might engage in Lenten fasts through ways that benefit not just our relationships with the divine but all of creation. McFague elaborates here on what she refers to as “kenotic theology,” a term she introduced in her previous book, A New Climate for Theology (2008). Speaking of kenosis—self-emptying—she draws from Philippians 2:5–8: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” For McFague, this idea of self-emptying, exemplified not only in Jesus but in numerous saints and disciples over the centuries (she explores especially the lives of John Woolman, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Day), “suggests an ethic for our time, a time that is characterized by climate change and financial chaos” (Blessed, 6).

Of course, to assume an entire ethic based on the concept of kenosis as a Lenten practice would be an unreasonable expectation; doing so would require of most people a wholesale overhaul of their ways of looking at the world, which can hardly be accomplished over the course of forty days! But that should not prevent us from using the Lenten season as a time to explore what it might mean to begin to adopt a kenotic theology. As McFague says of this theological approach,

Since its primary source is personal stories that read the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, its central content is self-emptying for others, ranging from sharing food and healing bodies to the sacrifice of one’s own body on a cross, the ultimate gift of the self so that others might have new, abundant life.... It is a countercultural story, calling on our “wild space” to imagine a different way to live in the world, one at odds with our economic, governmental, and often religious interpretations of the good life.... What we see in the stories of Woolman, Weil, and Day—not to mention Jesus—is paradigmatic but not programmatic. (Blessed, 173–74)

By resisting a programmatic understanding, McFague opens the door to our imagining this different way of living in the world, which is an ideal practice during the “wild space” of Lent. And her vision of what kenotic living might look like is indeed different from the stereotypes of asceticism that mark most discussion of Christian practices of self-denial:

Kenosis manifests itself in attitudes of curiosity, delight, interest, and openness about the world in which we have been mysteriously “set down” and left to figure what to do.... Kenosis is not sackcloth and ashes, depriving the self of all worldly goods and pleasures for personal purification or salvation; rather, it is a hardheaded, sober analysis of the way things are; that is, the recognition that “something other than oneself is real” and not only deserves space but requires and demands it as well. (Blessed, 144–45)

Curiosity, delight, interest, and openness—these are hardly words that we associate with Lenten practices of discipline and sacrifice. But they do characterize the ways that McFague has long asserted we should relate to the rest of creation. Nor are they inconsistent with her call to a “hardheaded, sober analysis of the way things are”; indeed, for McFague, proper appreciation and respect for the other proceeds from this very sort of regard. In Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature (1997), she asserts that “Christian practice, loving God and neighbor as subjects, as worthy of our love in and of themselves, should be extended to nature” (1). She expands on this thesis by contrasting the “arrogant eye,” which looks upon others and nature as objects to be dominated and controlled, with the “loving eye,” which understands our relationship with nature in terms of a “subject-subjects” model. This can be done by regarding nature with a spirit of appreciation, seeing it “as it is.”

Interestingly, in her next book, Life Abundant (2001), McFague declares her previous understanding inadequate: she concludes that loving nature is not enough when we continue to live consumerist lifestyles that express “greed, indifference, and denial.” She continues, “We North American middle-class Christians need to live differently in order to love nature, and to live differently we need to think differently—especially about ourselves and who we are in the scheme of things... [meaning] the largely unconscious picture of who we are that is the silent partner in all our behavior and decisions” (xi). This is surely the sort of self-reflection to which Lent calls us. Yet, what saves McFague’s call to think differently from generating the usual sort of blasé Lenten disciplinary practices is her passionate appeal to the planet’s well-being and a rigorous critique of prevailing models of economic growth and wealth maximization that reduce humans to consumers and make the rest of creation objects for our consumption.

Her title Blessed Are the Consumers, then, is tinged with no small amount of irony, in that it doesn’t endorse unfettered consumerism, but points instead to the opportunities that we consumers have to live kenotically—which is also what characterizes God’s relationship with the world. As she writes, “The issue of how to live well has become one of how to change from how we are living now to a different way” (Blessed, xi). We need to practice restraint so that others might have more—particularly those who already are wanting for the basics of life or whose lives or well-being are threatened by our lack of restraint. This means embracing a radical theology of incarnation:

A deeply incarnational understanding of Christianity claims that at every stage—who God is, what creation is, who we are, and how we should live—the focus is on embodiment. Jesus gives himself in his life and message of empathetic love to others, gives his body on the cross in solidarity with all who suffer, and thus points to God as the divine giver par excellence, whose being is composed of persons, as movements of interweaving love. Likewise, creation is the pulling in of the divine self to allow space for others to live fully embodied, physical lives, and Christian discipleship is following the pattern we find in Jesus’ life and in the Trinity of limitation, restraint, ­self-sacrifice of one’s own body that other bodies might flourish. (Blessed, 201–202)

So, what does this mean for contemporary Lenten practice? Again, McFague does not offer programmatic or prescriptive solutions, always wary that we may become overwhelmed by the myriad needs; never being able to do enough, we are apt to do nothing. And indeed, her theological vision is so large—this article only begins to touch on the range of her provocative ideas—it is hard to know how to begin to embrace and enact it, no matter how compellingly she urges us toward it. But again, Lent does give us the opportunity to try on some different ways of thinking that can translate to new forms of practice. So, for starters, we might adopt her so-called house rules for living on planet Earth as a general guide for Lenten practice: “Take only your share; clean up after yourself; and leave the house in good condition for others” (Blessed, 209). This might mean that, rather than thinking of restraint in terms of our own fasting from certain foods or habits, we can extend the idea of restraint to resisting consumer urges that contribute to the denigration of the earth and oppression of others. She suggests that rather than just share food with others, we can be food for others by engaging in acts of voluntary poverty: “We are called to lives of simplicity, restraint, moving way down on the index of material comfort so that others may have their fair share” (Blessed, 209).

Finally, our loving attention to the Earth and its inhabitants, expressed in acts of kenotic self-giving, can be a way of attending to the divine or demonstrating our devotion to God insofar as we embrace McFague’s understanding of the Earth as God’s body. As she writes, “in this theological paradigm, God is always incarnate, always bound to the world as its lover, as close to it as we are to our own bodies, and concerned before all else to see that the body, God’s world, flourishes” (Blessed, 172). Lent, then, can be a time to re-engage the world in a new way, and to rethink how we live in God’s image, an image of restraint and self-giving. In Blessed Are the Consumers, as in all her published work, McFague issues a bracing clarion call to Christians for a new kind of Lenten fast, one in which we take the world into ourselves:

We must love nature as it is: physical, needy, interdependent, vulnerable. If we find God in the world, then we have set the context, the place, where we meet God. This perspective militates against an individualistic, spiritual relationship between God and the soul. It unites mystical spirituality—our personal relationship to God with the world—with the needy body, which must have the basics for flourishing. Finding God in the world means as well that our use of energy becomes important, for nature and its many creatures can only live by energy. Hence, mundane things like transportation, heating and cooling systems, concrete for buildings and roads, food production (whether local or brought from afar) become the way we love God. Loving God and sharing energy are one and the same thing. This kind of spirituality leads not only to delight and joy in the beauty of the world but also to kenosis, limitation, self-restraint, ecological economics, a sense of finitude, the need to share space, as we come to realize who we are in the scheme of things. (Blessed, 19–20)

Writing this as we approach Lent 2014, I must be honest and say that I am still unsure of what, if any, Lenten discipline I might take on this year, much less whether it might be informed by the work of Sallie McFague. Certainly, I could do more to cultivate the “loving eye” and tame my “arrogant eye,” as I look upon others and all of creation. I could take my practices of restraint beyond the New Year’s resolution level (portion control!) to helping ensure that others around me have enough. Or I could find yet another writer whose works might help me to read the Lenten texts anew. But having immersed myself in McFague’s writings, I know there is a wealth of unexpected wisdom there on which we all can draw so as to live into McFague’s aforementioned house rules, not only in Lent, but throughout every season of life.


David Lott is a freelance book editor living in Washington, DC.


Works Cited

Sallie McFague: Collected Readings. David B. Lott, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

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