Biblically sound practice or a way to show how pious you are?
As a kid I saw people practicing Lent but never understood what it meant or what they were doing with the black marks on their foreheads. Later on when I became a Christian, pastors did talk a little about Lent but it was never a serious subject at the churches I attended. As a teenager, my Catholic friends did seem to take it somewhat seriously, at least going to church, confession, and getting the ashes on their forehead for Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent.) But in the Protestant church I sometimes attended, Easter Sunday was the important theme, not Lent. What I did know about Lent was that some of my Christian, and Catholic, friends talked about giving something up for Lent. Usually it was something that was not important or if it was, there was laughter and joking about how long they could last avoiding what they were going to give up. And it was not only about food, it included movies, drinking, smoking, and even things that were easy for them to give up.
Decades later in my studies of scripture, I never thought about studying Lent, why it is practiced, and what it actually meant…until recently. I read an article on Lent and why the writer thought it was not something Christians should participate in. Not being familiar with something that was traditionally part of my Christian faith, I went to scripture to find what it revealed about the subject. This is what I discovered and my findings give proof to what I currently believe.
Basic history of Lent (one of many descriptions): Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. Lent began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves of the value of repentance. The austerity of the Lenten season was seen as similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3). However, over the centuries Lenten observances have developed a much more “sacramental” value. Many Catholics believe that giving something up for Lent is a way to attain God’s blessing.
Some people take Lent seriously as a command or requirement from scripture. I disagree and this is what I found in Scripture.
I did not find any requirement or request that we should follow the Lent traditions of today’s culture. The only tradition that is commanded I did find was that of communion as in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. However, concerning traditions, we are told in Scripture not to break the commands of God for the traditions of man: Matthew 15:3-20.
Modern Lent seems to be a tradition of fasting, moderation, and self-denial and is coordinated corporately by the church. For many (mostly Catholics) it is also a time to obtain God’s blessing (or grace) by way of sacrifices.
The following are the scriptural reasons why I don’t practice Lent. First, fasting is not a corporate affair. Fasting is described by Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Fasting will not gain you favor with God.”
Second, grace can’t be earned. It is a gift from God: Ephesians 4:7 “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Ephesians. 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Third, the present way people give things up, sacrifice in the name of, and show honor for God is not biblical. It seems that the only thing we can honestly sacrifice for or to God is found in Romans 12:1, Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, which is your reasonable service.” Paul’s admonition to the believers in Rome was to sacrifice themselves to God, not as a sacrifice on the altar, as the Mosaic Law required the sacrifice of animals, but as a living sacrifice. We are to sacrifice our old worldly ways and adopt the ways of the Lord.
In Scripture, fasting is the practice of giving up nourishing food — something that your body relies on for life. The practice of giving up something necessary and life-sustaining should cause people to focus on God and rely on Him solely to sustain them. Currently many practice the act of giving up luxuries and unnecessary things in their life during Lent. However this is not what Jesus had in mind when he gave instructions on fasting.
Fourth, Lent is a tradition of man, but that does not make it sinful. However it may become a grey issue (or possibly sinful) if it is made to be compulsory, in order to gain favor, that it is commanded in scripture, or a requirement for salvation (“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” — Colossians 2:8.)
And fifth, praying, fasting, being a living sacrifice, honoring God, accepting His undeserved grace, stopping bad habits, and meditating on God should not be limited to the Lent season. It should be a year round event, not just for forty days.
So, if I was to celebrate Lent, I would make it a personal event. It would be between God and me. It would be done in private and not done so everyone could see how spiritual I am. It would be a true living sacrifice where my success would be shown by the outcome of the good fruit evident in my lifestyle. It would be the constant desire to appreciate the undeserved grace showered on me even though at times I “do not realize that I <you are> am wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked (Revelation 3:17).