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Why Lent?

February 17th, 2010

Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath.

Romans 5:9

 

Why bother with Lent? (Fastenzeit in Deutsch)

 

There are many more reasons found in Scripture to avoid Lent altogether than to participate in it. First, is the fact that the Bible does not command it, or even mention it. Lent, as a specific religious season, was introduced by others but made official Catholic Church practice only in the 600’s by Gregory the Great. The 40 days did not include Sundays, which were feast days, and were begun with the priest putting ash on the forehead of participants as a symbol of repentance, reminding them that from dust they came and to dust they will return (Genesis 3:19), hence the beginning of Ash Wednesday.

 

The second reason not to observe Lent is that there are many warnings against such things like Lent in the Bible, such as in 1 Timothy 4:3-5 that warns of people teaching abstinence from certain foods, foods which God created as good and should be enjoyed with thanksgiving. Lent, with its focus on giving things up, tends to suggest some justification by works, that one becomes more acceptable to God by doing without, instead of by faith in Christ.

 

In fact early on Lent was viewed by many as an unnecessary burden to the people, a type of pharisaical ritual placed on the people that promoted hypocrisy as well as self-justification. By 800 things began to loosen up and Christians could eat after 3:00 pm. By the 1400’s it was noon and meats began to be introduced, and by 1966 the Roman Catholic Church reduced the fast days to only two: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

 

Enforced legalism in matters of faith did, in fact, create excesses in response in pre-Lenten celebrations of almost unconstrained human sensuality. Marde Gras of New Orleans, the Carnivals of Rio de Janeiro and Cologne, are all cases in point. So, why bother with a non-biblical, archaic observation that lends itself to self-justification, the neglect of God’s act of grace in Christ, ungodly preceding celebrations, and an otherwise useless exercise?

 

Good question, but I think I have a good answer.

 

In spite of these concerns, I am observing Lent this year for two reasons: (a) the increasing worldliness of Christians and (b) our need for humility before God.  If there is any spiritual benefit from Lent it must be entered into for personal reasons, out of a personal choice, and not because someone has pressured you to do it. So, my reasons for observing Lent are really to confront my own worldliness and to humble myself before God. Perhaps, to observe Lent would also be of some spiritual benefit to you. I know that some will say something like, You know, some fasting is good for your health. That may be the case, but it is not out of concern for my physical health that I am observing Lent, but out of concern for my spiritual health.

 

That something may be non-biblical does not necessarily mean that it is unbiblical. (Computers are also not mentioned in the Bible.)  The season of Lent developed as a response to the increase of worldliness in the church and this is still a major temptation for us. The wise among Christians have always feared the world’s influence in the church more than the world’s persecution of the church. Pure religion, according to James, requires us to keep ourselves unspotted by the world. God does not condemn us on the basis of how much of the world’s wealth we possess, but rather on the basis of how much of it possesses our hearts. But wealth and worldliness promote selfishness, and we who have so much need to be mindful of its spiritual danger. If our greatest need was what the world offers, John 3:16 would end, “that whoever believes in Him might not be poor but have material wealth,” or “might not be powerless but have political sway,”  or “might not be without friends but have popularity,” or, well, you get the point. God has blessed Christians around the world with incredible wealth, power, and influence, and we should thank Him for this, but at the same time we must recognize the danger of these things consuming our hearts and distracting us from Christ.

 

The Christian position is that through Christ alone we are saved from wrath and have real life. To spend a season of prayer and fasting, humbling ourselves before God for six weeks, is a helpful spiritual exercise if undertaken in the right spirit, but it is not a means of gaining forgiveness or salvation from God. Through Christ and only through Christ are we acceptable to God, by our faith, yes, but not by our acts, not by doing without or making sacrifices. The heart of biblical fasting is, in fact, this humble attitude of bowing before God in faith and gratitude, confessing who He is, admitting who we are, and acknowledging who we are not. It is the attitude at every hunger pain that says, I need food but I need God more.

 

Some excesses to the Lenten season have been added through the years, matters which I refuse to do. For example, certain prayers involving saying “Glory to God” or “Hallelujah” were to be omitted until Easter. This is silly, for these are merely responses from hearts touched by God, and if the Spirit touches me in the next weeks, which I trust that He will do, then to praise Him and acknowledge that Christ is risen and victorious and coming again, is the right response of the heart. To do otherwise is to quench the Spirit.

 

Let me stress again that Lent only has spiritual benefit if the matter is willingly entered into for the right reasons and in the right spirit. I would judge no person for not observing Lent, that that means they are less spiritual or less devoted than me. As we have already said, to observe Lent is not a command of Scripture. If there is to be real benefit it must be voluntarily entered into. But if a season of prayer is voluntarily chosen, placing aside our normal dependence on certain physical things, as we are led by the Spirit, if we wash our faces and dress and act outwardly otherwise normally, as Christ taught (Matthew 6:16-18), if we let this be a time of meditation on the works of Christ for our salvation, if we honor Him first and foremost, then we should expect God to notice, as Christ said, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” 

 

The reward of meditating on the work of Christ will not be self-righteousness or pride, but the spiritual rewards of joy, peace, love, and assurance that God gives to the humble. Perhaps you, also, are sensing the leadership of God to use this season of Lent as a special time of personal devotion. I invite you to follow daily my Lenten devotionals through this season until Easter. I do not plan to tell you what I am giving up or how I am fasting, for if I am concerned that you think it is not enough or it is too much, then my thoughts would be distracted from God and what should be an act of humility then would become a performance for others.

 

One final thought: it is the nature of all true spiritual progress that we become less self-focused and more God-focused and others-focused. True Christianity does not promote a morbid self-fascination that shows itself in some orgy of self-obsession, and even self-loathing can become such a thing. We die to self in order to life to God, and this means that our thoughts during Lent must be directed upward toward God and outward toward others. The one who moans and groans through Lenten observance, or though life in general, has missed the point of the joy of Christ, and that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And, to complete the reference to James above, true religion is also found in helping others, the vulnerable, weak, and oppressed.

 

Prayer:

 

Lord, we bow before You acknowledging how weak our wills are, how easily we are tripped up by the world, how vain we are prone to be, how quick we give into the trinkets the world offers. Give us real life, Lord. Purify our hearts. Deepen us, O Lord, in our devotion to You. Create within us Your true joy and true peace, and open doors that we might share Your love with the world. Amen.

 

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