Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I never experienced this thing called Lent. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until I was in university that I began to pick up on this “thing” that a few of my catholic friends would mention. I would hear some guys ask each other “What are you giving up for Lent?” and one would respond “Homework,” or “Obeying traffic laws.” I just viewed that Lent was one of those peculiar practices demanded of Roman Catholics, thus another great reason to be Protestant. I never thought that Lent was something I might actually be interested in.
It really wasn't until we started Soul Sanctuary that I seriously discovered that Lent is in fact recognized by millions of Protestant Christians and it begins before Ash Wednesday. The word Lent comes from the Middle English word for “spring.” It 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. Eventually, believers 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 the preparation involved this thing called “fasting.” Many believers decided that they were going to give something special up during the six weeks of Lent and focus more on following GOD.
Historically, many Protestants rejected the practice of Lent, pointing out, that it was nowhere required in Scripture, which is true…but neither is celebrating Christmas or Easter the way we do! But also, some Protestants wanted to avoid some of the excessive aspects of Catholic penitence that tended to obscure the gospel of grace. Now I need to add that if you think of Lent as a tradition 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 BAD Friday and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep the season until you’ve grown in your understanding of grace. Some segments of Protestantism saw Lent as a season to do something extra for God, not to give something up. What we all must do is see Lent as a time to grow more deeply in God’s grace.
After ignoring Lent for the majority of my life, I’ve paid more attention to it during the few years. Sometimes I’ve given up something, in order to devote more time to Bible study, meditation and prayer. Once I added extra devotional reading to my regular spiritual disciplines. I can honestly say that I haven’t 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 BAD Friday and Easter, thus appreciating more deeply the meaning of the cross and the victory of the resurrection.
We need to remember that 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! That is refreshing and freeing! I would say the same thing about Lent. If it helps you prepare for a deeper celebration of BAD 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. Just be aware 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.
“So, Do I have to give up something for Lent?” In university some of my Catholic friends chose to give up decent food or drink during Lent and this always seemed to me to be one more good reason to be a Protestant!
Now, there are those in the realm of Christendom 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. But let me add that the practice of observing Lent is not prohibited in Scripture. But it isn’t taught there either. One can be a faithful, biblical Christian and never recognize Lent. Historically, there were some Christians 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.
The fact is 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 fasts.
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 some Catholics abstained from meat on the Fridays of Lent. 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, (Yeah, that’s not going to happen here!).
As I said earlier, in recent years I have sometimes given up something in Lent, this year I haven’t decided what I will do. I may give something up, I may not….But if you decided that you want to give up something and fast during this season understand that when you are giving up something, it is as if you are making a tangible “sacrifice” to the Lord. The act of sacrifice should remind us of our commitment to God and our desire to make Him first in our lives.
Let me add, that when you give up something that you usually enjoy on a daily basis, chances are that you will find yourself yearning for that very thing. You will be tempted to give up your fast at times and you could easily argue that it’s unnecessary, because 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 GOD.
When I fast, 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. During my fast, and I feel a desire for that thing in which I surrendered, 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 filled.”
Of course feeling hungry or craving for one of life’s pleasures like chocolate, coffee even alcohol, or watching your favorite TV show 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.
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 discipline and also those who continued faithfully in their walk with Christ. No matter what you do during this Lenten season, I pray that God will draw you closer to Him, and prepare you for a fresh experience of BAD Friday and Easter. May God’s peace be with You!