I must admit that I did not grow up observing Lent. I am a non-denominational pastor of a fairly non-traditional church. So, some people might dismiss me before they read any further because of my background. But with anything in life, sometimes an outside view is the best one when something on the inside might need to be reconsidered.
According to the Roman Catholic Church, Lent is a 40 day period of preparation for Easter Sunday. It is a season marked by prayer, fasting, abstinence and giving. For most people who follow Lent, it begins on Ash Wednesday, which is today. In theory, the idea of Lent can be a good one. But here are a few cautions I have observed over the years from my friends who decide to “give up something for Lent.”
Caution #1: Lent can lead us to focus on giving up the wrong things and leads to a false righteousness. In high school I dated a Catholic girl during the season of Lent. I remember that she gave up chocolate. I also remember that she cheated on me with her ex-boyfriend who was away at college during that same season of Lent. When we started dating, we had made a commitment to remain pure with each other because that was the right thing to do. The logic behind “give up chocolate” but engage in “sexual immorality” has just never made sense to me. But sadly, many Christians do something similar to this when they observe the season of Lent. They give up chocolate, but not sin.
Maybe, instead of giving up chocolate and coffee for Lent, we could give up what the Bible actually tells us to give up: “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed…rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:5,8-9).
Caution #2: Lent often involves a fast which is frivolous. When we give up candy or soda pop or something like that and call it fasting, we need to be careful to not make that which is holy all too common. I used to teach that fasting was anything that you would give up for a time period to show God that you were serious about acknowledging Him as the leader in your life. Fasting could be giving up television for a week. Fasting could be just about anything. I don’t believe that anyone. Why? Because a couple months ago I came across the teachings of someone who was dedicated to fasting. It changed the way I will think about it until the day I die. This “spiritual giant” has fasted for years. He has fasted for a 24 hour period and also for 21 and 40 day periods. He fasts by withholding from himself food and sometimes water. This is what he said about fasting: “Biblical Fasting is always connected to food and water. And there is a reason for that. We cannot live without food and water. When we give up one or both of these things for a period of time, we are showing God that we hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
If you want to give up coffee or candy for Lent, go ahead. Just be careful about calling it fasting. When your stomach growls because you haven’t eaten for a day, you are reminded that you are to hunger for righteousness. When you decide to not drink water for a day, you are reminded that the true Living Water is the only One who will quench your thirst. True fasting involves food and water because the substitutes (coffee, soda) fall short in bringing the human soul to acknowledge the supernatural work of God in your life. Giving up candy doesn’t cause you to hunger or thirst. Giving up your favorite television channel doesn’t cause you to hunger or thirst. An empty stomach and a dry mouth has much greater potential to remind you of your need for the God of the universe.
Caution #3: Lent can wrongly lead people to believe that they can be saved by their works. Since the beginning of the early church, people have engaged in asceticism in order to find salvation. Let me give you a few example of asceticism over the centuries. In the middle ages, monks would…
…mix sand with their bread and then eat it.
…stand for 7 years without ever sitting.
…allow beetles to eat them and do nothing about it.
…only eat uncooked food for 7 years.
…live in a swamp for 6 months.
…refuse to lie down for 40 years to sleep.
…not speak for one full year.
…keep a record of how long they would go without seeing a woman.
…even carry heavy weights everywhere they would go.
All this would be done so that they might become righteous before God. They believed that by denying themselves of certain things, that would make them more spiritually fit as a Christian. But when Jesus told us to deny ourselves, He was not referring to standing for 7 years or sitting in swamps. He was referring to selfishness. A certain kind of pride often creeps in and we think we are better than others when we do things in the name of denial. So if you do some things in the name of Christ, don’t tell other people. If you fast, do it in secret and only tell those who really need to know about it. Don’t announce to the world what you are giving up for Jesus! Just do it and let the world know that there is something different about you.
The picture you are looking at is the 12th century Ladder of Divine Ascent in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt. This picture shows monks, led by John Climacus, ascending the ladder to Jesus, at the top right. These monks are climbing on a ladder with 30 steps. They are to do 30 things in order to find their place with Jesus, to be worthy to get to heaven. But along the way are demons with arrows that are trying to take them down. This is asceticism and it has no place in the doctrine of salvation by grace. The belief that if you work hard enough in certain areas, you will succeed in your entrance to heaven, has sent many well meaning people to hell. It is not asceticism which saves you. It is the grace of Jesus Christ. Lent can sometimes turn into asceticism.
Caution #4: Lent often becomes ritualistic instead of deepening our relationship with God. Even though I didn’t grow up Catholic, I did grow up with my own set of rituals and traditions that I was taught to follow. Over the years, I have decided that most of the traditions I was taught were extra-biblical and do not lead me into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. So, I have decided to stop following those traditions. It has been an important part in my spiritual journey.
In the local church I lead, I estimate that we have at least 100-150 people who grew up in the Catholic Church but now attend Central Church. As much as they have appreciated their heritage and the good foundation that the Catholic Church gave them, they almost always share with me a common theme after attending for a while: “For the first time, I realize that my Christian faith is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.” For too many church-goers, it is all about going through the motions of a mindless ritual, and yet they are just as far from God as before they entered the church building.
Maybe Lent is a spiritually moving event for you. Maybe you grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ like no other time because you are giving something up for Him. But maybe it has become a tradition that you do because you were taught it was important for a good Christian to do. Maybe, just maybe, God’s plan for you is much bigger than 40 days. Maybe, God wants you to deny yourself 365 days a year and get rid of your sin and instead clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).
In the words of Job, who once had ashes on himself: “I know that my redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). The season leading up to Easter should be one of complete joy, for we know that our redeemer lives! We are not in a season of death, for our redeemer lives! Our redeemer has paid the ultimate sacrifice! We cannot and should not add to our Savior’s sacrifice. Our redeemer lives!