The concept of Lent is one of the earliest traditions in Christianity. Some semblance of it is mentioned at the council of Nicaea, circa AD 325. As with most things that are millennia old, things adjust and develop over time. In the 4th century, it was more than likely not a 40 day internal pilgrimage for the Body of Christ at large, but rather, a two or three day time of fasting and prayer for those who were about to be baptized into the Christian faith. Christendom had recently just shifted to a state sanctified religion because of emperor Constantine’s conversion. Droves of people sought to join themselves to this new wave and the church was concerned that many were just doing it as the wave of culture ebbed and flowed. They set up a preparation time for the would-be baptized to seriously consider what it meant to follow Christ, and that it wasn’t always peaches and cream.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Church history both affirms and calls Lent into question (Calvin called it a superstitious observance, vulgar, and a gross delusion). Scripture likewise has much to say about fasting, prayer, discipleship, personal holiness, repentance and renewal, along with seeing to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world (which can be carnal or religious looking) rather than on Christ.
Depending on your own religious background, Lent is probably one of two things things to you.  A normative tradition you grew up in that has form but perhaps not substance.  That religious thing that “crazy Catholics” (or any other liturgical church with roots older than this century) do to try and earn God’s favor. Personally, I view it as a time of preparation to more greatly glory in the cross and resurrection of Christ, as a time to develop my faith further as something more than words, to more consistently push into God asking for his judgments and discipline which leads to the peaceable fruit of righteousness.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
I’m a redemptionist. I have a bent on taking things that have been twisted or surrendered to the wrong god and buying them back to be brought under the authority of Christ. I get the fact that Lent can be a twisted and manipulative thing both in our heart and in our churches, but it doesn’t have to be. We can redeem the time, local churches can creatively interact with it in a healthy way, the Holy Spirit can/will lead us and guide us in truth through it. Know nothing here is dogmatic, just conviction. Lent has been a process for me; I’m not sure I started or do it every year with pure motives, but every year the Lord has spoken, refined me, and glorified Himself in it. Test everything, hold onto what is good.
And remember this (via Tim Keller): The good news of the Gospel says NOT “I obey, therefore I am accepted”, but conversely, “I am fully accepted in Christ, therefore I follow.” To do Lent without the grace of Christ is no more than being spiritually masochistic.
Why You Shouldn’t Participate
A life of faith in Christ is a life lived with God in all things (read Colossians 3:1-17). However, we tend to live out of four other avenues instead. These help fuel our irreverent fear and desire to control things more. This structure of thinking is borrowed from Skye Jethani, but placed in the context of our topic at hand.
Rethink about doing Lent if you are approaching the season…
- Under God: Emotive, ritual superstition is the name of this game; doing Lent will appease God and by so I will be blessed.
- For God: Views Lent as a mission that must be completed; the utilitarian checkbox can be marked and because you did this for God you can secure your significance. This is similar to under, but with a more pragmatic flavor.
- Over God: Characterized by doing Lent, but without God; takes the principles of fasting and turns it into a Christian New Year Diet Plan, takes prayer and reflection and forms it into a self-help paradigm.
- From God: This mentality pre-determines what it will and won’t take from God; Lent is used as a vending machine to get stuff from God rather than a pilgrimage to walk through an experience with God.
Remember, Lent isn’t a commandment; you don’t have to participate and it would be better to not walk through it rather than to walk through it with some key things out of sorts. It takes courage to say “no” to certain things for the sake of honesty, especially when that honesty includes revealing some stuff about yourself you’d rather not admit. Perhaps God only wants to use thinking about Lent as a way to speak to you of some core, off-the mark beliefs about identity, both His and your own.
Why You Should Participate
All that being said, I think the majority of Christians should enter into the Lenten season. I’ve mentioned some personal reasons embedded in the opening section of this post. Here are two more.
- Discipline Is Not A Dirty Word: Lent, with God, is counter-cultural. Denying yourself, longevity of commitment, and asking to be judged are not virtues of our society. Being a disciple means discipline, and while this includes more than the Lenten season, it’s a good place to develop. Asking for the Lord’s judgment is a rough thing, that’s one reason why the Scriptures says nobody likes discipline at the time it happens. But in His grace and mercy, in Him separating and untying us from the most pathetic things, further intimacy with Him in that process is worth it and ultimately brings glory to Him.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
- Enter Into The Story of Scripture: The main reason yearly liturgy is good for us is because it provides space for us to enter into the the sweeping narrative of Scripture. This is primarily in the Life of Christ from Advent to His Second Coming, but also with all the Old Testament allusions and shadows pulled in. Each year, though the same timeline, different layers come out by the work of the Holy Spirit. We love the precise word that God speaks to His local churches through the glorification of Him in Sunday morning corporate worship where there is a sermon series or a book of the Bible being worked through. We also need to fall in love with the broad story of Scripture and be taken away by that. Lent can be part of that, specifically the hard part, the mourning part, the wrestling with sin part, death, darkness, mortality, refining. These things happen to us as a normal part of life, but having a rhythm where we enter into it unleashes something as deep calls unto deep. “Forty” in Scripture is a significant number. What does it mean for God’s people to interact with the Story of Scripture in the “Forty”?
“Forty” is a stock Biblical word that has hope at its core. Forty days is a period for testing the reality of one’s life – examining it for truth, for authenticity. “Is this a real life, or just some cheap imitation passed off on me by a sleight-of-hand culture? Is what I am doing and saying my own, or just borrowed from people who know less than I do about who I am and what I am for? Is God skillfully shaping and wisely guiding my life, or have I let my untutored whims and infantile sins reduce me to the lowest common denominator? Is this the way I want to spend the rest of my life? -Eugene Peterson
Thoughts on How You Should Participate
A major component in participating in Lent is grace. Grace doesn’t mean you don’t need to take things seriously or can do whatever you want (may it never be!). Grace does, however, help push against the debilitating nature of “perfection”. Many times we want to do things only if they are in the “right” manner; however, that means we end up not doing them at all which can be a far worse thing.
Here are a few items to help you jump start your thoughts on what to give up or take on. And yes, they are contradictory at times. Also, watch this 6 minute video analyzing Carnival vs. Lent by Bruegel that shows the folly of both ends of the spectrum, whether worldly or religious.
- Don’t Have a Personal Mardi Gras: Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday which kicks off the Lenten season. Around my neck of the woods, it means gorging on donuts before giving up certain foods for Lent. In my opinion, this is like going to see a stripper the day before you get married. There is no need for self-indulgence before going into the season. If you want to have a delicious donut (and they really are delectable) on the Tuesday before, go for it. But eat it in thanksgiving, not in a “gotta get what I want before the Lord takes it away” mentality. You are choosing to do Lent, nobody is forcing you.
- Do Have a Time of Preparation: You should pray and consider the themes and elements of your Lenten journey now, not three days ahead of time. The nation of Israel had a regular rhythm that included a day of preparation weekly to get ready for the Holy Sabbath day. They took honoring God through the Sabbath seriously, which included thinking about it ahead of time, not just on an 11th hour whim.
- Do Something With Food: Food is the primary element that is fasted from throughout Scripture. Especially in affluent 21st century America, our stomachs, whether it be with extreme dieting or eating whatever we want whenever, can easily play god in our lives. Remember, we don’t live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of God.
- Don’t Do Something With Food: On the flip, fasting from food doesn’t mean as much as it did in antiquity because it’s so readily available. Fasting from food back then also meant having a butt load more time because you didn’t just pop something in the microwave or go to the drive-thru. What is in your life that you may find just as important as food that takes up your time? May I suggest something to do with technology or entertainment? Consider limiting those things to provide more space for silence, prayer, study, and service.
- Don’t Gorge in Self-Denial: Rookie mistake is to enter into Lent the first time with a ton of things to (not) do. You are no more loved by God for doing or not doing Lent; you are no more loved by God by doing seven things rather than one.
- Do Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: That being said, don’t be a complete pansy when you think about what it means for this season to deny your self. It’s actually quite important that you fail to some degree. God will strengthen you in all things, and when you give in to times of weakness remember that Christ alone is sufficient; you need Him to cover you (and in more than just a spiritual exercise).
- Do Be Private Where Appropriate: Meaning don’t boast in your offerings or be showy in your fasting. God sees you, that’s all that matters. Standard Sermon on the Mount stuff.
- Don’t Dismiss Being a Public Symbol: I recommend doing one thing for Lent that has personal value but is publicly seen. Last year I dyed my hair gray every morning for 40 days. I wasn’t trying to be a hipster. It was a reminder of my mortality. From Psalm 90: Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Having some type of external component to your Lenten journey invites the world around you into it and can provide a small avenues of conversation or declaration of Christ to others. Visual communication is the type of communication in our culture at this time. How will the individuals members of the church be icons in an appropriate manner? Icons, historically within the church, are not meant to be looked at, but, rather, looked through.
- Don’t Negate Joy: Lent is undoubtedly a time of solemnity, and blessed are those who feel the Father’s heart and mourn. But again, if God is bringing things worthy of praise and rejoicing your way, then by all means rejoice. Rejoice even in your weaknesses. The 40 days leading up to Easter are actually 46 because each Sunday is to be a mini-resurrection day of rest from Lent, remembering that Christ is and has come as is celebrated on Easter and Pentecost.
- Do Invite Community In: Fasting and prayer are very personal things, but they are also communal. In the Old Testament, there was one time of year when the whole of God’s people were told to fast together in conjunction with the Day of Atonement. Maybe fasting for Lent for you means that each member of your small group takes one meal per week from which to fast. Maybe preparing for Lent means asking people that you are close with their opinion of things you could give up or take on that would be completely oblivious to you otherwise.
For everything there is a season
and a time for every matter under heaven…
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Lent was originally called Quadragesima, which is a direct translation from the Greek meaning fortieth. Later it was changed to its current name-sake as the language of the church took on the people rather than the religious aristocracy. The term Lent in German culture means long or to lengthen and is also used for the word Spring. My hope for you is that as you walk through the Lenten season, you receive something, great or small, in your spirit from the Holy Spirit about the newness of life that is in the resurrected Christ. The good news of the Gospel is all encompassing; it’s there both in the night and the day, during feast and famine, in suffering and dancing. The good news of Christ with us is both past and future and, thank God, also present.