Especially last month at the beginning of the Lent season, I’ve noticed the discussion among Reformed Protestants spring up again online about it. Is Lent biblical? Is it a good thing? Is it just a “papist” tradition? Should Protestants take part in the season of Lent? Well, I’d like to offer a few thoughts of my own in response.
What is “Lent”?
Lent is a 40-day fasting season precluding Good Friday and, ultimately, Easter. This year, it began on February 14th and will end March 29. Good Friday is on March 30.
The purpose of Lent is to fast in order to prepare oneself spiritually for the coming week of remembrance (Holy Week) of the sacrifice of Christ and his triumph over death and sin in his bodily resurrection. The purpose of Lent is rediscover what it means to carry one’s cross, to be a disciple, to find joy, peace and hope in Christ alone. It is a season of giving up in order to receive the highest gift–greater intimacy with the one, true God.
Matt Chandler, here, provides an interesting summary:
What is my experience?
I’ve done Lent precisely once. Four years ago, during my freshman year of University with a Presbyterian church. As I think back, I consider it to have been a valuable experience. I learned a lot. I never gave up along the way though there were challenges and setbacks, to be sure.
I remember I decided to give up two things: slouching and pop. (There may have been a third thing but I can’t remember.) Giving up pop was relatively easy. Of course, I had cravings, but it was easy simply because there’s work involved in getting up, going to a store and purchasing pop.
Giving up slouching was a world of difficulty. I remember it was the weekend after the beginning of Lent that I had an introductory physics midterm exam. So, of course, I was sitting at a desk from dusk until dawn, the night before the exam, reading textbooks and practicing physics problems. It gets hard to resist slouching when you’re sitting upright for literally 6-8 hours at one time. The temptations started seeping in. “Surely God wouldn’t mind if I relaxed just this once.” “Surely, it doesn’t mean much that I stop fasting just for tonight.” How does one persist and remain focused when it seems so minor compared to other tasks in life?
Evidently, that was the first big challenge which came at me almost right out of the gate, which is telling to me. I continued to fast those two things throughout the season. I persisted, though, not perfectly.
What did I learn from participating in Lent?
Fasting is hard!
I’ve fasted before. For example, I did what’s called a 30-Hour Famine which is an event to support World Vision that requires fasting food for literally 30 hours. The second time I did 30-Hour, I passed out at the very end. Needless to say, it was a physical struggle!
Fasting for 40 days also presented it’s own challenges. It was hard to stay focused. It was hard to be motivated all the time. It was sometimes hard to be mindful of why I was fasting in the first place.
Fasting requires a church.
I believe that fasting requires a church precisely to overcome the obstacles I mentioned. When I did Lent, it was with support from pastors and other friends from the local church whom I could keep up with, tell stories, and laugh with. Church helps one remain focused, motivated, and consistent.
Fasting distinguishes what is best from what is good.
Perhaps the most profound thing that I’ve learned through fasting is that we are surrounded by things that are “good”. By that, I mean there are things that we surround ourselves with that aren’t inherently bad (nothing sinful in themselves) but nevertheless distract us from the better thing, the better person. When we fast, I feel that it helps clarify for me that while I have plenty of good things in my life (family, friends, food, technology, education, etc.) their value falls well below the worth of Christ and knowing Him for who He is.
At church last week, during his sermon, my local pastor said something along these lines, “Satan’s plan isn’t to fill your life with (just) bad things. He wants to fill your life with good things that keep us from seeing the very best, most worthy thing in Christ.”
Satan has a simple game plan.
As I mentioned, almost as soon as Lent began, I was hit hard with difficult circumstances that seemed almost specifically designed to cause me to fail. And this learning experience speaks so deeply to me as one who has dealt with addiction before (I won’t specify what kind of addiction here). Satan loves to throw in impossible difficulties and then toss in the argument, “If you fail, you will not merit God’s love. You don’t deserve to be in God’s family!”
In my struggles, I’ve had to recognize that, yes, I can’t possibly succeed or persevere without the grace of God. And, no, I’ve done nothing to deserve God’s love and grace (why it’s called grace). However, what Satan knows and hates, is that God doesn’t distribute his mercy and forgiveness on the basis of our merit, but of his own.
Intimacy with God requires constant giving up.
What I’ve come to terms with, for a while now, is that in order to grow as a Christian, I must necessarily “give up”, like Zacchaeus (Luke 19). I must give up things. I must give up comfort. I must give up dreams. I must give up relationships. I must give up time. The call to repent, the call to carry one’s cross, the call to leave one’s mother, father and house (Matthew 14:25-33) is no light and simple command. It is the call to recognize the purpose for which we are made, to submit oneself obediently to our maker, to find satisfaction in the pursuit of holiness and Christlike-ness. This doesn’t mean that I must live the most uncomfortable, painful, impoverished life possible. Not at all! However, it does mean that we are live with the mindset that if God were to ask us to give up everything for Him, we would say ‘Yes! I will have Christ!’.
Should the Protestant participate in Lent?
In short, I think it’s worth pursuing at least once. It’s a valuable learning and training experience, equivalent to running a marathon for an athlete. Is it a necessary practice for the Christian? No, but fasting is a spiritual discipline that I believe we are to take with a certain amount of seriousness.
Is Lent biblical? As far as I know, there is no biblical command to fast for 40 days in preparation of Good Friday. In this sense, there is no biblical mandate to participate in Lent. However, fasting certainly is biblical, as I’ve mentioned, therefore, Lent seems to fall within the bounds of biblical teaching, in my estimation. Lent does not need to conjure images of ash crosses on foreheads and tradition or ritual. Lent can be a meaningful, personal act of worship.
Of course, any spiritual discipline can very easily be perverted into an act of idolatrous, spiritual ritualism. Prayer, corporate worship, fasting–all of it can be turned into an act, a performance, a superstition. However, God’s call is for us to submit to his commands and to honor him with our actions, our thoughts and our words. Lent needn’t be viewed as superstition or ritual. As in all things, if done with humility, care and submissiveness to the Word, the spiritual practice of fasting, and Lent, can be a meaningful act of genuine worship.