Every year when Lent rolls around, I’m always surprised at how much I actually look forward to the season of scaling back. Maybe it’s because I’m still recovering from the excesses of Christmas, or that I don’t generally choose to commit to anything super drastic in the lead-up to Easter. While I have friends who nix sugar entirely or take only cold showers for 40 days, extreme changes have never been for me. (Especially ‘cause I’m pretty sure I’d crumple up and die if I didn’t eat sugar for six weeks.)
Instead, I subscribe to a “small-changes-add-up” Lenten philosophy. Whether spiritual or physical, there are tons of options for adding a little challenge, rather than giving up something major. Even when the tweaks to my routine aren’t all that dramatic, I’ve noticed that I still see “results,” like a renewed closeness with God and openness to the blessings of Easter. Here are four of my favorite mini-challenges to try throughout Lent.
1. Pray for 10-15 minutes a day
Although I’m 100 percent a believer in the power of prayer, I find it hard to actually sit down and just talk to God for an appreciable length of time every day. Like someone on a fast-food diet, I often gulp down little bites of prayer. But—not surprisingly—when I do, I don’t reap the benefits of a more “sit-down-meal” style of prayer: things like a peaceful heart, a quieted mind, and a renewed perspective.
In reality, though, we all could find 10 to 15 minutes (incidentally, about the same amount of time it takes to eat a meal) each day to pray, especially during Lent. To keep my attention from wandering, I like to use a four-step prayer pattern of praising God, reflecting on when I let sin come between us, thanking him for my many blessings, and finally, making requests.
If you’re up for this challenge, try designating a specific time for your daily quarter-hour. (You can even set a reminder on your phone to keep you on track.) Set extra intention by reserving a special place in your home as your prayer spot, like a corner of a room, a favorite chair, or even a closet.
2. Add some specific healthy foods
While Lenten commitments typically involve sacrifice — and sacrifice has great value — sometimes the best way to give one thing up is to add another. Despite my aforementioned sugar addiction, I’m actually a nutritionist! In my profession, I’ve seen that adding more healthy foods usually feels a lot better than taking away those we enjoy.
This Lent, experiment with committing to eat a certain number of servings of vegetables per day, or to drink a specific amount of water. You’ll likely find that, as you work toward getting more of these foods, they’ll replace other, less wholesome choices. At dinner, you might not make it through the bread basket and two glasses of Merlot if you’ve ordered a veggie and large glass of water, too. Even though this challenge isn’t technically a sacrifice, it’s still a mindful change — and, if you ask me, that’s what Lent is all about.
3. Read one longer book of the Bible
There’s no better time than Lent to brush up on your Bible reading. Making a habit of reading scripture can help you tune into all things spiritual as Easter approaches. Throughout the 40 days, why not put down your usual paperback in favor of one of the 73 books of the Bible? I’d recommend opting for a longer book like Isaiah in the Old Testament or Matthew in the New Testament. Choose something you’ve always wanted to finish — after all, those two-page New Testament epistles are just a little too easy — or if you don’t have one, simply choose whatever speaks to you.
For a mini-challenge, this past Advent season, I read through the book of Exodus. Not gonna lie, some details were a bit of a slog, but I was amazed at how much I learned about Israel’s history and God’s power to save his people from oppression.
4. Train for a 5k or other race
A 5k as a Lenten observance might sound a little unorthodox…but hear me out. If you’re not usually one for working out, training for a race can be a great way to connect the physical with the spiritual. Just like conditioning the spirit, conditioning the body takes focus, effort, and persistence. As you train for race day with daily or weekly runs, you may find your personal discipline increasing in other areas (like prayer), too.
Make your running even more Lent-a-licious by listening to a religious podcast or music while on the treadmill, or using the time to pray. Many “couch-to-5k” plans get you across the finish line in six weeks, making them perfect for the journey of Lent.
Originally published on February 26, 2020.