It is now 10 days into Lent, and even though the season of fasting is well under way, it is not too late to consider why many Christians observe this season, what we hope to accomplish or gain through it, and a few principles for fasting at this time.
I realize there are some people who will say, “Why celebrate Lent? It’s not mentioned in the Bible!” Well, that is true. Then again, the Bible also does not tell us that Jesus was born on December 25; it does not tell us to listen to Gospel music (or make any statements whatsoever about musical genres); and it does not tell us to vote Republican. If you are honest, the Bible does not tell us a lot of the things some Christians consider essential to the faith. Much of the Christian walk is a matter of reading the Scriptures and applying them in a way that is appropriate within our culture.
Lent provides a reminder to reflect on important truths about God, humanity, and Jesus, and it reminds us to live out our faith in ways that we might be inclined to ignore. Humans tend to be creatures of habit, so we often find something pleasant or comfortable and do it to excess. In relation to our faith, that means some of us would focus on one aspect of God’s nature, or one side of the Gospel, and ignore others. Some people talk all day about the love and forgiveness of God, yet ignore His holiness and justice. Others focus so much on His righteous indignation against sin, and forget that He offers forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
The traditional church calendar (including such seasons as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and “ordinary time”) gives us opportunities to reflect on different aspects of God’s holiness and the Gospel. It might be tempting to live in a yearlong celebration of Easter; but without the reflection on our brokenness that Lent provides, that would be a hollow and shallow celebration.
Lent is an ancient part of the church’s tradition, going back well over a thousand years. It has its roots in the earliest centuries of the church. At its core, Lent is a season when we prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christ’s triumph over sin and death through His crucifixion and resurrection. It is a time when we remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of redemption.
If anybody whose church does not observe Lent can find a problem with that thought, please let me know. It seems to be an essential fact of the Gospel that we are all sinners, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23; 6:23).
Let me make this clear: receiving ashes on one’s forehead never saved anyone. That ceremony on Ash Wednesday, which commences Lent, only serves as a reminder that “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). If the ashes remain on your forehead, but the message they symbolize do not get inside it, you gain nothing. The blessing of Lent is when we understand our need of a Savior. When we realize how lost we are without Jesus, and how much we receive His grace, we have received the blessing of Lent.
So, how should we fast? Bishop Craig Bates, Patriarch of the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, wrote the following on his Facebook page one day before Lent 2010 began: “Lent is not a time to give up things we should be giving up anyway. It is not the Christian 40 Day Diet and Recovery Program.” So, here are a few related guidelines:
- “It is not a time to give up things we should be giving up anyway,” as the bishop puts it. You do not give up watching pornography for Lent. That is not a fast; that is repentance, and it should last more than 40 days.
- Generally, you should give up something that is not sinful in itself. For example, most years I have given up coffee. Some people give up a favorite drink or snack. Others give up a hobby.
- You should give up something that you enjoy. This should be a sacrifice. I have never given up blue-cheese dressing for Lent for a simple reason: I HATE blue-cheese in all its forms. I would not miss it. I have no urge to eat blue-cheese dressing, so I would never have the challenge of resisting temptation.
- It should be challenging, but attainable. Do not give up breathing for Lent (impossible and dangerous). Do not give up all food for Lent without a clear word from God (even then, seek wise counsel first to make sure it is God, and not your own foolishness). Give up something that you will crave and desire, but that you know it is possible to survive a few weeks without.
- It should give us an opportunity to draw closer to the Lord. When we are tempted to imbibe in the thing we have chosen to fast, we should use the temptation as a reminder to pray.
If you have not initiated a Lenten fast, it is not too late. While many churches decree that the 40 weekdays leading up to Easter are the proper time to observe Lent, any time will do. God will honor your commitment, whether it begins on February 17 or any other date. Choose a time frame, choose a personal sacrifice, and commit your ways to God. He will reveal Himself and yourself to you in deeper ways than you ever thought possible.