The beginning of Lent and the disciplines associated with it prompt thoughts on what the point of them is. It’s not that we give up things that are morally murky or positively wrong, for these categories do not apply to the things we are called to cut down on. It is certainly not the case that we seek to earn divine favour by our efforts, for the love of God can never be earned. Nor is it the case that cutting back in certain areas can be explained by a beneficial losing of weight, in which case we would be turning the disciplines of the church to our own advantage, or having more to give away as alms, however desirable this may be.

Rather, the teaching of the saints, which is also their experience, seems to be that overriding our desire for things we would enjoy strengthens our ability to resist other, more negative impulses; the disciplines of Lent encourage a kind of strengthening of our inner muscles. Hence, as Ambrose of Milan puts it, by saying no to things that are permitted we become able to say no to things that are forbidden.

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