I thought that the questions seemed valid, but I knew there had to be some kind of an answer. I have given up chocolate for Lent in the past, and I can tell you as a chocoholic that there is something about it that can draw a person closer to God. I also figure that one of the reasons that it can be a popular one is that other people have found it to help as well. So what is it about giving up chocolate that can bring a person closer to God?
I think it's the conscious reminder in day to day life that there is something more in life than what is right before us. Turning down that brownie right in front of you keeps you mindful that there is something more important than that brownie. It is a little way of saying that I want to grow closer to God right now even more than I want to eat that brownie. It's not that the brownie is bad, it's just that the discipline of turning away from that builds our spiritual muscles and helps build us up on our spiritual journey.
I think that it's the discipline of Lent that I love so much. I also love that it tends to cut down the noise in our lives. A lot of people either cut back on TV or internet or find extra time to pray. I think those things also help us refocus and get our eyes back on God. I don't know exactly how, but the whole season of cutting back on the excesses prepares me for Good Friday. Somehow the austerity of it allows me to participate in some small way with Christ rather than simply hearing about it. Maybe that's overstating it, but I don't know quite how to describe it, other than to say that I think Lent is a wonderful practice that I would highly recommend to anyone that wants to grow closer to God.
There are a few things that I have found that work for me to help me to get the most out of my Lent:
1) Pray about what God might be leading you to give up. Don't be afraid to give up something that might make you redefine the word "need" in your life. For example, some people "need" soda to get them through the day. They might actually go through withdrawal without it. Giving up a so-called need requires you to lean on God to get through it. Then again, I've seen people go a little crazy overboard with what they want to give up as well. Finding the right balance is definitely a matter of prayer.
2) If you're going to give something up, it's often good to focus on one or two things. Rather giving up TV, internet, chocolate, and soda, maybe just pick one thing. Otherwise, it can become overwhelming.
3) While you give something up, find something to replace it with. For example, if you give up a certain TV show, replace part of that time with some God time, like reading the Bible, journaling, Adoration or finding an extra Mass to go to. If you give up Starbucks, use the money that you save to give to a charity.
4) If you're Catholic (and you're welcome even if you're not) I highly recommend trying to find at least one extra time per week that you can get to Mass. I know that's not always possible, but if you can do it, do it. My parish always offers extra evening Masses during Lent, and as far as I'm concerned that is absolutely the best part of Lent. I went two years in grad school with Mass on Sunday and very little in between to sustain my faith. One Lent I did this and suddenly I found God again when I didn't even know I'd been missing Him.
5) Sundays. They really don't count as part of Lent, because Sunday is the day that we remember that Christ was raised from the dead. That trumps Lent. Don't be afraid to celebrate Sundays, but don't use them as the day to glut yourself on whatever you gave up. Some Lents, I still didn't let up on Sunday. That went against the spirit of what Sunday is. Other years, I've pigged out on Sunday. Kind of ruined Lent for me, because that goes against what the spirit of Lent is. One thing I did one year is that I would always eat a doughnut on Sunday. Since I gave up doughnuts for Lent, I would get myself a chocolate milk on Sunday instead. Still something to make Sunday a celebration, but not going out and getting three doughnuts to make up for the ones I didn't get throughout the week.
6) Whatever you decide to give up for Lent, be sure that you are firm about it. If you give up cake, except when it's someone's birthday or on a special occasion, then what's the point of giving up cake? If it doesn't hurt a little, it won't help. On the other hand, don't let your firmness get in the way of charity. Sometimes patients will bring in special treats for a thank you. I'm not going to throw their effort in their faces by saying that I won't accept it because I gave it up for Lent.
7) The last thing that I would say is that it is good to not make a big deal of whatever you give up for Lent. The fewer people that know about it the better. Sometimes it is necessary; for example, if you give up internet and you are a blogger that I read, please let me know so I don't worry that you have perhaps fallen and broken all your fingers and you can't type.
Obviously, not all of these will apply to everyone, it's just some of the things that I have found through trial and error that seem to make a difference for me.