Who Should Observe Lent?

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2010-02-lent-bigWhen I was working for Residence Life in Davis, CA back in the day, my boss gleefully announced to the staff that he was giving up drinking beer for Lent. From the little I knew about Lent, I thought this was a noble decision on his part…. until I watched him get blasted on wine each weekend drinking enough to tranquilize a rhino.

What used to be a standard Catholic holy period has changed a bit. A few years ago I started to notice more and more young (as in age) Christians practicing Lent.  Actually the practice is old, probably one of the oldest of Christian holy days. The word “lent” is connected to the Latin word for “spring”, so it became a 40-day holy period beginning on Ash Wednesday leading up to Easter Sunday. Even as far back as Irenaeus (?-203 AD), one of the early church fathers, there was an emphasis on observing a period of time before celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Every day the early pagan converts to Christianity were taught for a 40-day period leading up to their baptism, during which they had to reflect deeply on their background in light of their newfound faith in Messiah.

Since Lent has predominantly been celebrated in the Catholic Church, how is it that Protestants are starting to embrace Lent? While it certainly is an individual decision, let me offer two reasons as to the value that Evangelical Christians might find in entering into a lenten period apart from any of the particular (and maybe troublesome) traditional nuances. First, there is a growing desire to re-connect to the rich history of the church. Without embracing a completely traditional understanding of Lent, well-intentioned, thoughtful Protestants want to recover a rich and meaningful church history. Not everything that’s cool happens to be new (you can read into this Lewis’ thoughts on chronological snobbery).

Second, in listening to my friends, it seems that the heart behind observing Lent is focused on fasting. They are less concerned with other aspects of Lent but instead seem to be eager to enter into fasting as a spiritual preparation for Easter. In the traditional sense fasting was connected to food, but it has grown into other things as well (e.g. fasting from video games, alcohol, etc.). I think this is marvelous that there has been this re-discovery of the spiritual value of fasting.

Fasting as a spiritual practice has always been valuable. The practice itself does not fix us or make us more spiritual in the sense that if we fast it will directly cure us of the myriad of addictions and unbridled emotions we have. In the same way, the primary reason why we practice Sabbath rest (or any of the disciplines) is not because it’s beneficial (“I rest one day so I can be reenergized to work hard for six days”). The main focus of the practice of fasting is God – what He wants to do in our hearts and what He wants to point us to.

It seems to me that what fasting does is simulate a “mini-suffering” (as do the other disciplines) as we voluntarily enter into a place where we deny ourselves something for a period of time. It is a willing and intentional “getting to the end of your rope” in order to depend solely on God. In the sense, it is has the same effect of external suffering which most people would agree is a major source of personal growth.  

The actual hunger for food in fasting reminds a person that what their soul hungers for ultimately is God Himself. The actual giving up of something reminds us that there are places in the heart where over-desire, over-love, over-importance, over-emotion, even wrong beliefs that we put too much weight on, “fill us”. Food, which is a good thing, can be used to mask deep vice in the human heart. God through His Spirit wants to fill even those areas of the heart. Fasting graciously points us back to God as the source of life and the ultimate Giver of good gifts. We cannot do life without Him!

But the practice of fasting also points us to Christ. My wife, Kay, reminded me that in Philippians 2, Paul speaks of Christ’s “setting aside” in becoming fully enfleshed. What He willingly gave up, He did so for his entire life. Further, while our sacrifices are not trivial, they are intended to lead us to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. We see this in Christ’s 40-day fasting period in the wilderness when He was tempted by Satan. During that time everything that Satan tempted Christ with was to get Him to avoid the Cross. What Christ did in His “giving up” was for our redemption!

The regimen of fasting for a prolonged period (40 days) right before Easter has great gospel implications! So are you open to fasting starting this Wednesday?

2 thoughts on “Who Should Observe Lent?

  1. Amanda Allen

    Jon, this was a wonderful read! Although I also appreciated your link to the Fat Tuesday donuts and shared that with my new boss as we are celebrating Marti Gras tonight at the chapel. Reminds me of the yummy mouth melting Beignet from New Orleans you introduced us too!

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