What’s the Deal with Lent?

Skepticism about this season is based mostly on myths and misconceptions.
What’s the Deal with Lent?

One day early in our engagement, my then-fiancée now-wife, Laura, and I were locked in a stalemate: Where would we go to church once we were married?

It began politely enough but devolved into exasperation. I wanted to find a church with great expository preaching and rich liturgy. Laura preferred a church with stirring worship and emotive stories of life-change. The conversation went nowhere. Week after week, we searched in vain to find the right church, and each experience gave us something new to critique.

Eventually a friend of ours recommended that we visit an Anglican church in the western suburbs of Chicago. The day we visited was the last Sunday of Epiphany, and the church was preparing for a journey we had never taken: the 40 days of Lent. Without knowing why, we were drawn back to worship with them again, observing this strange communal practice like anthropologists visiting a foreign culture. Don’t all these rituals reflect a works-based understanding of salvation? What’s the point of giving up the comforts of life? God doesn’t need that from us! Like many evangelicals who love the gospel, I had my doubts about Lent.

Thirteen years later, I now pastor an Anglican church in Chicago filled with peo­ple who have little to no background in the cycles of the church calendar—the ancient way of ordering time around the life of Christ and his church, which includes Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost. I frequently have conversations with Christians and spiritual seekers who feel drawn to walk with Christ through the practice of Lent but need to be taught the basics. Perhaps you are in the same place. You might not be quite sold on the idea because you have some lingering qualms and questions that you feel haven’t been fully satisfied. Let me address some of the common objections to observing Lent so that you may consider the season afresh.

Lent Isn’t in the Bible

The word Lent is an old Saxon word meaning “spring,” and no, it is not in the Bible. However, the path of Lent—prayer, fasting, and generosity over a period of time—is heavily emphasized by the authors of and characters in the Bible, including Jesus. The Bible commends a lifestyle of worship and devotion that looks considerably like Lent. Therefore, while the word is absent in the Bible, the reality of Lent is woven throughout the whole of Scripture, as we have discovered.

The Bible is replete with specific times set aside for devotion to God, including ones that last 40 days. Moses fasted for 40 days when he communed with the Lord on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28), Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and, of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert to prepare for his public ministry (Matt. 4:1–11).

Jesus told his followers not to fast while he, the bridegroom, was present, but that they should after he departed (Matt. 9:15). In Matthew 6:16–18, Jesus teaches that when we fast, we should not do so in the manner of the Pharisees. Notice he did not say if you fast, but when you fast, assuming his followers would keep this practice. If Jesus himself practiced and advocated for fasting, why should his church refrain from the practice in anticipation of Easter? While Lent is not in the Bible, the practices of Lent (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) are indeed biblical and Christ-centered (Matt. 6:5–24).

Colossians 2 Forbids Ascetic Fasts

Christians who are skeptical about Lent often quote Colossians 2:16–23. The argument often goes like this: Paul is teaching us that any exhortations to refrain from food and drink are in themselves an expression of self-made religion opposed to Jesus Christ. Some have gone so far as to suggest that such calls to fast are demonic, quoting 1 Timothy 4:1–3.

But is Paul forbidding a season of fasting in these passages? No, Paul is opposing popular heresies that pitted the spiritual against the physical. One strand of heresy that gained influence in Asia Minor—where Timothy and those in Colossae lived—was a belief that the physical world was inherently wicked. God’s creation, including the human body, is evil, and that the path to true freedom is to reject all the trappings of the embodied life—like food, drink, and marriage. That is truly a demonic teaching. Christ made all things (John 1:1–14) and upholds them by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3).

Moreover, by assuming humanity in his incarnation, Christ has redeemed the embodied life and declared it good! Christ is reconciling heaven and earth through his incarnation and cross (Col. 1:20). This is why the apostle John told his readers to test the spirits by affirming the incarnation, that Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:2–3). So by all means, let us keep the feast! Let us celebrate the King of Kings, and, if he sees fit, get married, have sex with our spouse, and rear children in Jesus’ name (1 Cor. 10:31).

Let us also keep the fast so that our appetites may be reordered, not destroyed. Fasting and celibacy carried out in the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit affirm the human body in the story of redemption. It recalibrates the human appetite. Fasting done to exalt the ego or destroy the flesh is based on the “elemental spirits of the world” (Col. 2:20) and should be rejected as anti-Christ.

Let us not forget that the apostle Paul, who wrote both texts quoted above, chose both celibacy (1 Cor. 7) and fasting (Acts 9:9) for the sake of Christ. Immediately after his conversion on the road to Damascus where he saw the Lord of glory, Paul fasted from both food and drink for three days as he prayed in preparation for his baptism (Acts 9:9–19). Who would be better able to distinguish works-righteousness from genuine formation in Christ than Paul, who was once a master Pharisee? Yet as a converted Christian and apostle, he linked discipline of the body to fitness of the soul. Not only that, he enjoined the believers in Corinth to join him in bodily discipline (1 Cor. 9:24–27).

In short, Paul did not forbid what his Lord commended. When church leaders serving Jesus call their people to a Lenten fast, they are contending for the spiritual freedom of their congregation. When false teachers denying the incarnation call people to a fast, they enslave people with lies. It’s unfair and irresponsible to lump together a call to Christ-centered prayer, fasting, and generosity with the gnostic fasts that were popular in first-century Asia Minor.

Lent Is a Form of Works-Righteousness

Works-righteousness is an attempt to earn merit with God through certain behaviors. Any spiritual practice can get corrupted into the legalism of earning merit before God, including Bible study, social justice, or tithing. All of these practices are good, but if they are done in attempts to earn what Christ has already given us, we’ve enslaved ourselves.

Works-righteousness is a yoke of slavery that leaves us either anxious or arrogant before God. Even the Sinner’s Prayer, which is intended to be a free response to God’s great mercy, has become for many a fear-driven ritual intended to earn God’s salvation. Many Christians pray it over and again, hoping they have said the right words or meant them sincerely enough.

We want God and the people in our life to approve of us, and we want to feel good about ourselves. Apart from our union with Christ, we are proud and fearful people, bent toward trying to earn merit. Any good action, prayer, or vocation, therefore, can become works-righteousness. But that doesn’t mean we cease praying, giving, fasting, or loving our neighbor.

In order to operate in God’s grace rather than in works-righteousness, we must first recognize the awesome character of God, who is gracious and slow to anger. This is seen most clearly in Christ, who died to take away our sins and renew our world, even while we were still God’s enemies (Eph. 2:1–10; Rom. 5:10). Second, we can ask Jesus to live his life through us, and to give us assurance of God’s fatherly love (Rom. 8:12–17). Whether we are fasting or feasting, suffering or rejoicing, laboring or resting, we operate in union with Christ who did all that. Yet we continually need the Spirit to awaken us to obedience. As Dallas Willard wrote, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but is opposed to earning.” The season of Lent is a participation in God’s life, not an entrance fee to heaven. Our security comes from resting in God’s free gift.

Lent Is a Roman Catholic Practice Unsuitable for Protestants

While Lent is practiced by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, it does not originate with or belong exclusively to them. Lent is also observed by most historic Protestant denominations, because it is a mere Christian practice belonging to all who follow Jesus. The majority of Christians around the world and throughout history are, or were, observers of Lent.

Do you affirm the truths about Christ contained in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus is fully God and fully man, put forward by the Council of Nicaea in 325? I hope so. The Nicene Creed is a theological gift to all Christians because it helps us interpret, teach, and live out the Scriptures responsibly. The same council of pastor-theologians who developed the Nicene Creed also formalized the practice of Lent. Why, then, would you receive the theological gift of Nicaea but not the pastoral one? Both are mere Christian in character and belong to the whole church.

Lent Is Just a Fad

It is true that Lent is trending among evangelicals, but that is far different than it being trendy. When something trends, it gains traction and attention. When something is trendy, it usually lacks substance in its nature and is thus dispensable, like a gimmick.

The Western church is all too enthralled with trendiness and gimmicks. But Lent is no more a gimmick than gathering for worship is. Lent is no more a fad than expository preaching is. Fog machines are a gimmick, as are movie-based sermon series. As of the writing of this book, it’s trendy to preach from an iPad while wearing skinny jeans. That trend will fade someday, but history indicates that Lent is here to stay.

But is Lent simply an artisanal spiritual practice for people attempting to craft a mystique? One prominent theologian has suggested that evangelicals who observe Ash Wednesday are guilty of a “certain carnality [which desires] to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it.”

We are not called to cast sweeping, disdainful judgments about people who practice Lent (or not). Yes, some who practice Lent are obnoxious about it. But that is not a sound reason to write off the season. Let us make our decision based on the biblical, theological, and pastoral value of Lenten practices. This side of heaven, none of us have entirely pure motivations. But we can choose a pathway where the Holy Spirit can transform them.

Ashes Cannot Help Us Repent

Ashes in Scripture are an outward sign of inner repentance before God. The book of Esther depicts the people of God using ashes to mourn and call upon him for help (Esther 4:3). Jonah 3 commends the Ninevites for repenting in ashes before God. In ashes, Daniel prayed for God’s mercy (Dan. 9:3). Even Jesus affirmed the use of ashes to repent (Matt. 11:21). What we do with our bodies matters. Ashes remind us of our mortality, our sin, and our need for Jesus’ redemption.

Lenten Practices Should Be Lifelong

Many people ask, “Why should I give up something for 40 days that I wouldn’t for the rest of the year?” Or, “Why limit fasting, prayer, and generosity to the 40 days of Lent? If this path is good for Christians, why not make it the default, lifelong posture?”

In short, heightened devotion is fruitful for a season, but cannot be sustained indefinitely. The Christian calendar offers a sustainable rhythm of which Lent is a part, and the fasting of Lent gives way to the feasting of Easter. Fasting and feasting are interconnected disciplines that teach us to love the King and his coming kingdom. In Lent, we learn to confess our sins, practice self-denial, and take on the humility of Christ. In Easter, we learn to rejoice, exult, and feast in Christ’s victory. As historian William Harmless explains, “In these two liturgical seasons Christians drank in, by turns, the ‘not yet’ and ‘already’ of New Testament eschatology.”

It’s important to remember that the Christian liturgical calendar developed in part out of the rhythms of Jewish practice. The Old Testament indicates seasons of both heightened devotion and celebration, including Levitically led “sabbaths, new moons, and feast days” (1 Chron. 23:31) and “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts” (Zech. 8:19). Fasting and feasting were part of the “architecture of time,” in which Jesus participated as an observant Jew.

Practicing this rhythm of devotion each year has a cumulative impact. Each time we latch ourselves to Christ during Lent, he minsters maturity and grace that impacts the rest of our year. Many Christians choose to keep or modify their Lenten disciplines for the rest of the year, as they have established helpful routines.

Finally, all Christians are welcome to exercise the disciplines they learned in Lent at any time. In the same way that every Sunday is recognized as a “little Easter,” many Christians celebrate every Friday as a “little Lent” by fasting in remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death. Other churches invite their members to fast in January as a way to devote their year to God. Setting time aside for certain practices allows us to focus more intently on God and to develop godly habits.

My Personal Experience with Lent Was Damaging

This is a serious concern. Some Christians were raised in a family or church that observed Lent but did not explain the vision behind the season. They were expected to fast, pray, and give their money without understanding why. Now that they have the option, they choose to not observe Lent. And it feels liberating! If that is you, I want to speak to you as a pastor.

First, your pain is legitimate. It’s healthy to feel loss and sadness in response to this deficit in discipleship. If you feel angry for being forced to do something you did not choose, it’s healthy to acknowledge that. Whenever arbitrary rules override our will, we will feel controlled rather than liberated. Many evangelicals feel similarly toward “quiet times”—personal Bible study and prayer—that they were forced to do growing up. Without a personally compelling reason behind the discipline, it becomes a rule—and rules can breed resentment.

Second, it might be healthy to seek Jesus apart from the season of Lent. Take a season for healing when you can hear Jesus’ invitation to you personally. He can restore the freedom for which your soul longs. Seek out the wisdom of life-giving pastors and fellow Christians flourishing in Christ. Realize that fasting, prayer, and generosity done rightly can bring freedom and joy. It is the spirit in which we approach these 40 days that makes the difference between lifeless legalism and vibrant devotion.

Finally, consider practicing Lent differently than you did previously. If there are “old wineskins” from your early formation—disciplines, prayers, or patterns that trigger a sense of fear and control—leave those aside. Ask Jesus to give you “new wineskins” and a fresh vision for his work in your life during Lent.

If you love Jesus Christ, cherish his gospel, and live under the teachings of the Bible, I commend Lent to you. It’s a season of spiritual devotion with roots in Jewish worship, the teachings of Jesus, and the practices of the apostles and early church. The Reformation-era critique of Lent as it was observed in Medieval Europe was much needed. The solution, however, is not to cast aside Lent entirely, but to reform our practices so that they align with Scripture. This season of repentance is a gift to all Christians, and good medicine for the modern church.

Aaron Damiani is the lead pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. He is a regular contributor to CT Pastors and Preaching Today. This article was adapted from his latest book The Good of Giving Up (Moody, 2017).

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What’s the Deal with Lent?