How Lent Can Make a Difference in Your Relationship with God
Copyright Â© 2011 Mark D. Roberts and Beliefnet
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Introduction to Lent
Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I experienced Lent
as little more than a joke. “What are you giving up for Lent?” my
friends would ask. “Homework,” I’d say with a smirk, or “Obeying my
parents.” Lent was one of those peculiar practices demanded of Roman
Catholics – another great reason to be Protestant, I figured. It never
even occurred to me that Lent was something I might actually be
interested in, or benefit from, or decide to keep, or come to value as a
way of getting to know God better.
In the last fifteen years I’ve discovered that Lent is in
fact recognized by millions of Protestant Christians, in addition to
Catholic and Orthodox believers. (The Eastern Orthodox Lent
is longer than the Catholic or Protestant Lent, and it begins before
Ash Wednesday.) Lent (the word comes from the Middle English word for
“spring”) is a six-week season in the Christian year prior to Easter.
(Technically, Lent comprises the 40 days before Easter, not counting the
Sundays, or 46 days in total.)
In the ancient church, Lent was a time for new converts to
be instructed for baptism and for believers caught in sin to focus on
repentance. In time, all Christians came to see Lent as a season to be
reminded of their need for penitence and to prepare spiritually for the
celebration of Easter. Part of this preparation involved the Lenten
“fast,” giving up something special during the six weeks of Lent (but
not on Sundays, in some traditions.)
Historically, many Protestants rejected the practice of
Lent, pointing out, truly, that it was nowhere required in Scripture.
Some of these Protestants were also the ones who refused to celebrate
Christmas, by the way. They wanted to avoid some of the excessive
aspects of Catholic penitence that tended to obscure the gospel of
grace. These Protestants saw Lent, at best, as something completely
optional for believers, and, at worst, as a superfluous Catholic
practice that true believers should avoid altogether.
A Pastoral Word: Let me note, at this point,
that if you think of Lent as a season to earn God’s favor by your good
intentions or good works, then you’ve got a theological problem. God’s
grace has been fully given to us in Christ. We can’t earn it by doing
extra things or by giving up certain other things in fasting. If you see
Lent as a time to make yourself more worthy for celebrating Good Friday
and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep the season until you’ve
grown in your understanding of grace. If, on the contrary, you see Lent
as a time to grow more deeply in God’s grace, then you’re approaching
Lent from a proper perspective.
Some segments of Protestantism did continue to recognize a
season of preparation for Easter, however. Their emphasis was not so
much on penitence and fasting as on intentional devotion to God.
Protestant churches sometimes added special Lenten Bible studies or
prayer meetings so that their members would be primed for a deeper
experience of Good Friday and Easter. Lent was a season to do something
extra for God, not to give something up.
ignoring Lent for the majority of my life, I’ve paid more attention to
it during the last two decades. Sometimes I’ve given up something, like
watching television or eating sweets, in order to devote more time to
Bible study and prayer. (The television fast was especially tough
because I love watching March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament,
on TV.) Sometimes I’ve added extra devotional reading to my regular
spiritual disciplines. I can’t claim to have had any mystical
experiences during Lent, but I have found that fasting from something
has helped me focus on God. It has also helped me to look ahead to Good
Friday and Easter, thus appreciating more deeply the meaning of the
cross and the victory of the resurrection. Before I began honoring Lent,
Good Friday and Easter always seemed to rush by before I could give
them the attention they deserved. Now I find myself much more ready to
meditate upon the depth of Christ’s sacrifice and to celebrate his
victory over sin and death on Easter.
Let me be very clear: Lent is not a requirement for Christians.
Dallas Willard has said that if a certain spiritual discipline helps
you grow in God’s grace, then by all means do it. But if it doesn’t,
don’t feel like you must do it. I’d say the same about Lent. If it helps
you prepare for a deeper celebration of Good Friday and Easter, if it
allows you to grow in God’s grace, then by all means keep it. If Lent
isn’t your cup of tea, then don’t feel obligated to keep it. You should
realize, however, that millions of Christians – Catholic, Orthodox,
Protestant, and Independent – have found that recognizing the season of
Lent enriches our worship and deepens our faith in God.
In my next post in this series I’ll consider some of the
symbolism of Lent, and suggest some possible Lenten practices to help
you keep the season.
grew up hearing about Catholics who had to fast during the season of
Lent. No meat on Fridays, only fish. This, you must understand, was a
costly sacrifice in the cafeteria of Glenoaks Elementary School! The
fact that my Catholic friends had to give up decent food in Lent always
seemed to me to be one more good reason to be a Protestant. (Photo: I
expect that the Lent Promo at the Luby’s in Kerrville is much better
than my elementary school’s cafeteria rations.)
But, in the past fifteen years or so, I’ve sometimes
decided to join my Catholic sisters and brothers in giving up something
during Lent. This means, depending on how you count the days of Lent,
fasting from something for about six weeks. (Officially in the Western
world, Lent comprises the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the
day before Easter. But many traditions do not count the Sundays during
this period as belonging to Lent. Thus Lent covers 46 days, but only 40
days belong to the Lenten fast.)
People in my theological tradition (the Reformed tradition,
pioneered by John Calvin) tend not to emphasize Lenten fasting. Partly
this had to do with the conscious rejection of Roman Catholic practices
that were not clearly based on Scripture. Lent is not prohibited in
Scripture. But it isn’t taught there either. One can be a faithful,
biblical Christian and never recognize Lent. So, in days gone by, many
Reformed folk and other Protestants who wanted to make the season before
Easter special in some way, chose instead to add a spiritual discipline
to their lives as a way of preparing for Easter. It’s quite common
today for churches that don’t have midweek Bible studies, for example,
to offer a Lenten Wednesday Evening Study or something like this.
Special Lenten spiritual retreats are also increasingly common in
Protestant in addition to Roman Catholic circles.
But fasting still plays a prominent role in Lenten
practices of many Christians across the denominational and theological
spectrum. Throughout church history there have been different kinds of
Lenten fasts. Nobody, to my knowledge, expected anyone to give up all
food for the whole season. In the Middle Ages it was common for
Christians to give up certain sorts of food, like meat and/or dairy
products, for example. This explains why, in my youth, Catholics
abstained from meat on the Fridays of Lent. Many Catholics still
observe this discipline. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lenten fast
is taken even more seriously than in the Roman Catholic church, with
many Orthodox folk eating vegetarian meals during the season.
recent years I have sometimes given up something in Lent, perhaps
chocolate or watching television. The latter was particularly hard
because I enjoy college basketball, and March Madness (the NCAA
bastketball tournament) always falls in the middle of Lent. This year I
have decided to give up something I enjoy. I’ve also adopted an
additional daily spiritual discipline. It don’t think it would be
appropriate for me to speak in detail about what I’m doing at this time.
But I would like to share some reflections on what I’ve been learning
through my version of a Lenten fast.
What I’ve Learned by Fasting During Lent
First, giving up something allows me to make a tangible
sacrifice to the Lord. Although certain sacrifices are already present
in my life, they’re sort of “built in” at this point. I don’t often
experience giving up something for God on a daily basis. The act of
sacrifice reminds me of my commitment to God and my desire to make him
first in my life.
Second, by giving up something I usually enjoy on a daily
basis, I have sometimes found myself yearning for that thing. Frankly,
I’ve been tempted to give up my Lenten fast at times. I could easily
argue that it’s unnecessary (it is optional, after all) and certainly
not taught in Scripture. But, though I don’t think my effort at fasting
makes God love or bless me more, I do think it raises my awareness of
how much I depend on other things in life rather than the Lord. I see
how easy it is for me to set up all sorts of little idols in my life.
Fasting, in some way, helps me surrender my idols to God.
Third, when I give up something I like and then feel an
unquenched desire for it, I’m reminded of my neediness as a person. And
neediness, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . .
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Matthew 5:3, 6
Of course feeling hungry for one of life’s pleasures isn’t
quite the same as hungering and thirsting for righteousness. But when I
feel my hunger, when I sense my neediness for some other thing, I can
use this to get in touch with my hunger and need for God.
Fourth, as I continue with my Lenten fast, I find myself
less eager for the thing I’ve given up. Ironically, this makes my fast
easier. It’s almost something I can take for granted, thus dulling the
spiritual impact of the fast. But I’m also gratified to know that one of
my little “idols” is being set aside in my heart, as I learn to depend
more upon God. I’m experiencing a bit of freedom that makes me gladly
thankful for God’s grace at work in me.
Adding a Lenten Discipline
Instead of or in addition to fasting during Lent, you might
add a spiritual exercise or discipline to your life. If your church
sponsors a Lenten Bible study, you might choose to join this study. Or
you may want to participate in some act of kindness, such as feeding
people at a homeless shelter.
I like to add something that I can do every day. It needs
to be realistic, given my nature and patterns of life. So, for example,
it would be a bad idea if I decided to get up at 5:00 a.m. to pray for
an hour each day of Lent. This would stretch me so far that I’d surely
fail. But I could take on additional Bible reading. Some years I’ve read
one chapter of a gospel each day of Lent, taking it in slowly and
meditating upon it. Other years I’ve used a Lenten devotional to focus
If you have no idea what to do during Lent, let me suggest
the following. Set aside some time of quiet to as the Lord what he wants
you to do. See if the Spirit of God guides you to something. If nothing
comes to mind, I’d recommend that you read a chapter of a gospel each
day. If you start with Mark, you’ll have time to read all of Mark plus
all of one other gospel during Lent.
Perhaps some of my readers would like to suggest Lenten
disciplines that they have tried in the past, and how they have
experienced God’s grace through these exercises.
So, as we enter the season of Lent, I am grateful for the
saints who have gone before me, some of whom discovered the blessings
of giving up something in Lent, while others grew in their faith by
adding a Lenten discipline. No matter what you do during this Lenten
season, I pray that God will draw us closer to him, and prepare us for
a fresh experience of Good Friday and Easter. May God’s peace be with