Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 9 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.
In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).
In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.
Easter has traditionally been a prime date for the church to baptize new believers. In earlier centuries, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though it focuses on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.
Since the second century, many Christians on Ash Wednesday have received ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).
It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.
On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. We are not saved by observing Lent, and Lent does not in and of itself make one Christian better than another. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is not the only way by any means. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.
The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:
First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely.
A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).
Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It is a weight on their walk with Christ. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.
If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be some sort of realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.
If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. While not an absolute “no-food” fast, a Daniel fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.
I would personally advise against going on a straight 40-day absolute fast without food. Yes, I know Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.
Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.
During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.
Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.