This year’s inspiration started out innocently enough. (Don’t all our best intentions?)

Come Lent, I would tackle the challenge and purge our home of unnecessary clutter. We’d fill the famed 40 bags throughout these 40 days, and off they’d go to Goodwill to bless someone else with what we no longer needed.

Sounds good, right?

Almsgiving and altruism. An all-around perfect practice for Lent.

So I tackled the toy box. I weeded through closets. I dumped out junk drawers. I dared to venture into the basement. I even eyed the bookshelves.

I proudly watched the pile of bags grow.

But as 40 days started to fly by and the bags began to fill, I started to get a sneaking, suspicious sort of feeling.

Who was I filling these 40 bags for in the first place?

40 Bags for 40 Days for Whom

Lent is supposed to be about disciplining desires and drawing closer to God. Preparing for Easter and paring down the noise in our lives to listen for the still, small voice of God.

But was I de-cluttering for Christ, or for myself?

I looked again at the bags I’d gathered. Every last one contained the extras, the excess, the unused and the unwanted. It certainly wasn’t the best I had to offer someone in need. All those prettier clothes were still hanging in closets. All those nicer plates and pans were still stacked in kitchen cabinets. All those well-made toys were still saved for my kids to enjoy.

Was my 40-day challenge really about giving to the least among us? Or about saving the best for me?

Truth be told, this isn’t the first time I’ve had to do a double-take on my Lenten practices. Like fasting for all the wrong reasons: vanity, competition, dieting. Or committing to prayer out of guilt rather than a genuine desire to meet God. Was this latest effort simply an extreme-sport of a 40-day challenge or the pure pleasure of a tidier house?

I started to wonder whether I should kick the 40 bags to the curb. Or maybe just call it what it seemed to be: spring cleaning masquerading as spiritual practice.

But then I remembered that temptations to quit can be anti-Lent, too. Maybe I just needed to step back and reconsider before I recommitted myself. Because, the truth is, what I’d gathered to give thus far was still something – even if I could do more or do it more prayerfully.

If we hope to move ahead on our spiritual journey, we have to start somewhere and start small. We have to rid ourselves of the excess before we can work on the heart. We have to trim the fat before we can tone the muscle.

So maybe I have to clear out the junk before I can start to ask myself how much my family really needs. Because excess distracts us from the truth of the Gospel, which is generosity, compassion, and care for the poor.

Perhaps it’s a perennial paradox of the Christian life: how to live within the tension of wanting to do all, be all, give all for Christ, and yet realizing that our human nature will fail us more times than not. Or maybe it’s the perpetual battle between comfort for ourselves and concern for others.

Either way it makes me squirm as much as the Gospel about the rich young man. The one Jesus invites to give what he has to the poor, to follow more freely and faithfully. The one who turns away sad and discouraged.

What if he had tried to start somewhere small, rather than being discouraged by the enormity of the challenge? Might he have been changed little by little and found himself becoming more generous, less materialistic, and more Christ-like, gradually and over time?

This Lent is too young and fresh to give up yet. We’re still weeks from Easter. I can’t let the overwhelming thought of trying to do everything immobilize me from the first step of trying to do something.

So I’m still stuffing those bags, day by day. But I’m starting to ask myself about how I choose to fill them. Will I only give away what we don’t want? Or will I open myself up to the thornier questions about how much our family truly needs?

I justify plenty of excess in my life. Which invites me all the more deeply into Lent: a time for leaning on less, to let go into God.

Does anything need to be reexamined in your Lenten practices? Where might God be calling you to dig deeper?

Copyright 2014, Laura Kelly Fanucci