What to Do About Lent?
Written by: Sammy Wichman
Lent is the period in the church calendar consisting of the 40 days before Easter. Lent begins about six weeks before Easter, on a day referred to as Ash Wednesday, and is typically a somber season marked by fasting and an increased focus on Christ’s sacrifice. While Lent is described as a 40-day period, it lasts for about 6 weeks because Sundays are considered a day of rest from fasting. This year, Lent begins on Wednesday, Feb. 17th and ends on Saturday, April 3rd.
Lent has an uncomfortable history. At different times throughout the years, people have been forced, by church or government, to observe Lent. The obligatory fasts have at times been incredibly severe! During some time periods the full 40-day stretch of Lent was a mandatory fast where observants were only allowed one meal a day!
Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who fasts as strictly as did the early observants of Lent. Many people in the Roman Catholic faith tradition corporately refrain from eating meat on Fridays. It’s common for participants from all denominations to fast from (or temporarily give up) something that is considered a treat: chocolate, television, social media, etc.
It has also become popular in recent years to adopt a new habit during Lent, instead of only focusing on fasting from something. Oftentimes this looks like deciding to pray for 30 minutes each morning during Lent, or committing to an hour of daily Bible study each day during Lent.
The reason why Lent is rarely practiced in Protestant churches is that observing Lent was traditionally tied with the idea of penance. The strict fasting that people observed during Lent was meant to somehow, partially atone for their sins. As believers in Jesus, we know that anything that claims to allow us to make up for our sins, or work to gain our own righteousness, is contrary to the gospel. Jesus and His perfect life, death, and resurrection are alone what pay for our sins and allow us to be reunited with God.
If Lent was traditionally practiced as an act of penance, then does that mean that practicing Lent is unbiblical?
Well, not exactly. If only things were that clear cut!
People typically observe Lent by fasting, and while a person’s motives for fasting can be called into questions, the act of fasting itself cannot. Jesus himself fasted for 40 days, and we’re told several times in the book of Acts that believers fasted (Acts 13 and 14 hold several examples).
Scripture is very clear, however, that there is a wrong way to fast and that a person’s motives for fasting matter. In Matthew 6 Jesus warns His listeners to not fast to get the attention of others. He even goes so far as to call people who fast in this way “hypocrites!”
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” -Matthew 6:16-18
We are given a similar charge in Isaiah 58:3-4, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”
Fasting can be a powerful way to help you focus on God by clearing your mind and your schedule of distractions. It can be a powerful tool to help you remember just how very much you need God when it’s easy to get through your day without ever considering Him.
While observing Lent isn’t commanded in Scripture, it can be a fruitful practice for believers. It’s a good idea to step back from your practice of Lent, however, if you find yourself feeling compelled to regularly tell people about what you’re doing for Lent. That could very well be an indication that you’re fasting for the sake of outward appearances. If you find yourself feeling extra “good” about yourself as you observe Lent, you also might want to step back and prayerfully consider if your Lenten fasting is producing the bad fruit of spiritual pride. Lastly, if the fast or new practice that you’ve adopted during Lent isn’t actually helping you focus on God or spend more time with Him, then it’s probably a good idea to step back and prayerfully reconsider.
At Winnebago, we will be observing Lent each Wednesday evening by Zoom at 7:15 with a message by various pastors in the community. It will be my turn Wednesday, February 24. If anyone would like to listen in let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or 3303888950.
Also, I would like to print your article on Lent but can't seem to format it to print. Gary Brown Associate Pastor