Why Lent Is Good for Bad Christians

The somber season leading up to Easter might feel like punishment. In fact, for people like me, it's sheer grace.
Why Lent Is Good for Bad Christians
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As managing editor of a national Christian magazine, I’m certain I am not supposed to say this out loud. But since it is Ash Wednesday—a day when millions of believers the world over will confess their sins—it is perhaps good and right that I confess mine here: For years I haven’t in any sustained way done daily devotions.

This neglect started in my mid-20s, around the time that said magazine began demanding more time and energy and mental space. Many days I would come home utterly spent from meetings and emails and editing, and a weariness seemed to drag me to the couch and to Netflix (or back to emails). The NIV Study Bible I have used since age 13 was displayed on my coffee table, a badge of good intentions, but mostly only that. Prayers of a weak mind planted on the pillow would go something like, “Lord, you know I really want to connect with you. I’m sorry. Please heal Lauren of her cold, and also bring me a husband. Night.”

There was a brief season in 2013 when, frustrated I could not attain what I wanted—to worship and listen to the Lord—I began a Bible-in-a-year reading plan. It was a “literary” plan, so each day comprised an Old Testament passage, a psalm, a Gospel reading, and a New Testament passage. Surely this plan would keep me from getting mired in Leviticus.

I never got past Day 43.

There’s a reason why spiritual exercises—personal practices meant to foster growth in Christ, including prayer, fasting, Bible study, confession, and meditation—are likened to physical exercises. So to speak, many of us are members at the Lord’s Gym, but we go twice a year. We have spent money on fancy equipment or workout clothing, only to stash them away in our basements and closets. We sign up for a 5K mainly for the donuts afterward. And then when we have the chance to go with friends on a weekend hike through the mountains, we are bummed to find that we are winded and miserable after a few miles of walking. We desire to be healthy, but we don’t have the life rhythms—the habits and disciplines—needed to realize that desire.

When we are desperate to be healthy and whole, yet know we don’t have the discipline to make it happen, sometimes we have to sign up for boot camp, for an intensive and structured routine that turns our good intentions into concrete action. Welcome to Lent.

A Gift of Grace

Starting today, a majority of Christians worldwide—including Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Protestant/evangelical Christians—will corporately start a 40-day boot camp. The word Lent means “lengthen” or “long days,” and it’s one of the oldest church observances, dating back in some form to the Council of Nicea (325 AD). As the 40 days leading up to Easter recalls Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, Lent is a time of sobriety and self-denial. As such, it typically involves abstaining from certain foods or incorporating disciplines of prayer and giving.

Which sounds great, right?

Actually, if you are a quiet-time delinquent like me, it is.

Last summer, after years of said quiet-time delinquency, I realized my spirit was parched. And that no amount of individual willpower was leading me to pray or read the Bible more.

So I tried really, really hard to get up early in the mornings.

And that lasted for three days.

So I signed up for an 8-month course on Ignatian spirituality at the church I attend. The course takes us through teachings of Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), a wealthy Spanish knight who came to Christ while recovering from the wounds of battle. The course asks that students spend 45 minutes in prayer and Bible study each day, and meet with a small group for 2 hours every week, missing no more than 4 meetings throughout the 8 months. Ignatius told Christians to think of themselves as soldiers for Christ, so it makes sense that this course is often described as boot camp.

That boot camp has been one of the greatest gifts of grace I could ask for.

And this is a helpful way to think about Lent, too, for those who choose to observe it. We’re not inclined to think about boot camp in any form as a gift of grace. Isn’t boot camp by nature punishing and humiliating? Not necessarily. Think of the parent of young kids who is diagnosed with heart disease. Or the CEO who has to miss weeks of work due to ulcers and high blood pressure. Or the friend who is crippled daily by insecurity and self-doubt due to significant weight gain. For these people, a regimen of healthy food, regular exercise, and accountability with a group or instructor would be a gift of grace. And all of us could stand a trip to the gym.

It shouldn’t surprise any Christians that discipline is part of what it means to follow Christ. The apostle Paul seemed to know that we naturally resist doing the good things we both want to and need to do. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out,” wrote Paul (Rom. 7:21). Hence, his language about training ourselves, and running the long race, and gearing up for battle.

And on this point, neuroscience confirms the apostle: Unless we were one of those kids who could resist the marshmallow, our brains crave instant gratification. If given a choice, we will almost always choose the quick fix—a cheeseburger, a tweet, another late-night episode of Making a Murderer—over the delayed but greater desire of low cholesterol, in-person communication, or eight full hours of sleep.

Lent is a season in which we put off spiritual quick fixes and set our sights on the greater, deeper, better desire of intimacy with Christ and growth in him.

Christ at the Center

Now before I start sounding like your CrossFit friend who wants to do burpees over lunch, it’s important to note that there are many ways we go wrong in our approach to exercise, physical or spiritual. One way is to think about it as a form of punishment or self-hatred. Lent is not about making ourselves miserable for its own sake, inflicting pain for sins committed throughout the year, or otherwise trying to deal with being spiritually out of shape by self-effort alone. The crazy and wonderful news is that, in Christ, we have already been declared “fit” before God. There is nothing we need to do or can do to add to his work on our behalf. A Lenten observance without this knowledge can easily reinforce common Protestant critiques (and caricatures) of Catholic or Catholic-ish rituals. As Puritan theologian John Owen wrote in On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, regarding Protestants acting like “popish devotionists”:

Such outside endeavors, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery of the gospel. [emphasis mine]

Or, as Owen later wrote, Lent can become a practice in calling Christians “to mortification instead of believing.” It goes without saying, anyone who chooses to observe Lent must do so in a way that puts front and center “the power of God and the mystery of the gospel.”

Which brings us to a second way that we err in how we approach Lent: We confuse our metaphors and treat these 40 days like an actual physical boot camp, when in fact spiritual fitness is the whole point. We turn the church calendar into a liturgical Fitbit, a tool we can incorporate into our lives to help us realize our weight-loss, strength, or technology-use goals. For some, Lent is a moderately helpful tool for sustaining otherwise good habits. (Even this self-professed binge drinker has abstained from alcohol during Lent for the past 20 years—although, it sounds like he goes back to drinking at Easter dinner.)

It should be clear at this point that I think physical fitness is good, and that setting goals to achieve said fitness is important. I have personally abstained from alcohol during Lent for the past three years, and during that time I feel better and probably lose a bit of weight. But I abstain from alcohol because it’s part of church tradition, not because I lose weight. It should be clear that the point of Lent is not to get six-pack abs. We have P90X for that.

Against these two Lenten errors, what if we approach Lent simply as a reminder of what we really want—a life of wholeness and fullness in Jesus—and a marked way of returning to it in word and deed?

The purpose of our life, our true and lasting happiness, is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Catechism proclaims. We are persistently unhappy because we try to meet our ultimate desire for God in things other than God. Even we Christians spend a lot of our lives doing so. As Augustine wrote, “For one who seeks what he cannot obtain suffers torture, and one who has got what is not desirable is cheated, and one who does not seek for what is worth seeking for is diseased.” All of us live in ways that lead us to torture, cheat, or disease ourselves. Our true happiness comes when “that which is man’s chief good is both loved and possessed,” wrote Augustine. Our chief good is Christ, and—thanks be to God—he has possessed us.

God does not need us to observe Lent. God does not need us to fast or to confess or to have our quiet time for 45 minutes every day. Christ has rescued us from the dominion of sin and death and marked us as his own, whether or not we recognize it or mark it on the calendar.

But I—horrible quiet-timer that I am—need Lent in order to remember in my heart and mind and bones that Christ is my chief good. Like all things of grace, Lent is not a requirement, but it can be a gift. For those like me who are sick and tired of being spiritually sick and tired, your fellow boot campers await you.

Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today.

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Why Lent Is Good for Bad Christians