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.