For many years, I have practiced lent as a protestant Christian.
What is Lent? Lent is the time of fasting before Good Friday, traditionally for 40 days (although it has been practiced at different lengths in different traditions), for many breaking on Sundays or times of feasts like weddings.
“Why do we practice Lent?” is a far more interesting question. Understanding that has been a bit of journey for me.
In high school, I practiced lent for the first time. As a young evangelical believer, I was intrigued by it, despite having some very ignorant anti-Catholic views. I despised anything that seemed like post-biblical tradition, but, for some reason, still wanted to try it. It ended up being one of the best things I have done in my life.
What did I give up? I gave up video-games and TV. When I made that commitment, I did not know what I was getting into. I watched a lot of TV: three to six hours a day on a school night. I played a lot of video games: if I was not watching TV that day, it was because I was hooked the next game I bought from EB Games.
With giving those things up, I realized that I had A LOT of time on my hands with nothing to do. So, I began reading my Bible. Later that year, I finished reading my Bible cover-to-cover. I decided to read Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. In essence, where TV and video games were, now was time spent with God….It was like TV and video games were my god before. Lent, the practice of fasting from something important to me, helped me draw close to the grace of Christ and rid myself of something that was borderline idolatry in my life.
In reading Purpose Driven Life, I was motivated to think about God’s purpose for my life. I realized I loved God’s Word and I wanted a career in it. I was a good student, and my mom was pushing me to become a doctor, but I found love in following God. Lent helped me draw close to Christ such that it produced a new found love of following Christ.
Without practicing Lent that year, I don’t know if I would be a pastor today.
The second time I practiced Lent was at seminary for a spiritual disciplines course. I thought I would really challenge myself, and I gave up all forms of meat. I was extremely stupid for doing that. I was obsessed with doing something that showed some kind of feat of self-control. I bordered on protein deficiency and lost a lot of weight because I simply did not keep up with protein from other sources. I fell to something like 135 pounds. I was miserable and melodramatic.
I remember my dorm-mate also gave up meat, but took it as an opportunity to gorge himself on just about everything else. He invited me to all-you-can-eat pasta restaurants. While it kindled a wonderful friendship, looking back, it really took away from the notion that what we were doing is a “fast” and not just a dietary restriction.
Also my brother got married at that time, and I refused to celebrate with him in all the great food that the celebration had. I did not understand the traditional practice took breaks during times of celebration like Sunday and weddings.
Lent that time, I practiced for the wrong reasons. I made it about showing off some feat of spirituality, which is the definition of works righteousness. Lent is an act not of self-will, but an act to acknowledge our lack of will, our need for grace, our yearning for the cross, our realization in a small degree for what Christ as done perfectly and completely for us because we are not able to have perfect self-discipline!
Lent is not about whether a person is successful or not in fasting from something for 40 days. I know a lot of people that want to give up silly things like chocolate for Lent. Lent is not a semi-religious way of losing weight or becoming healthy. You should be doing that anyway, and if what you are doing is about you, what you are doing is not about Jesus. Jesus is the point of lent. He died for our sins. We are merely responding with a fast to remember him with our bodies.
In some cases, then, I hope some people do not complete their Lent. If Lent is about what you can do, perhaps you need to be reminded that it is not you that does anything, but the grace of Christ that lives in you. Our strength, our will-power will fail. Lent is a lament, knowing the cost to Jesus, not ourselves, what it took to pay for our failures of will, our sin.
This is why in Roman Catholicism Lent is marked with ashes, thus Ash Wednesday. It is a reminder we are mortal; we are finite; we cannot save ourselves; we are dust and ashes. We must confess our sin and failure as we lament the costly death of Jesus for our sins. We lament Jesus’ death (while otherwise we celebrate) because our salvation simple is not worth his death. He died willingly, yes, but we would be deceiving ourselves if he died because we are such good salvation-worthy people.
That is the only way death, spiritual death, is overcome. It is not about our spirituality or our superiority it is about our mortality and our inferiority.
I took a break from practicing Lent for a while there. That Lent was not good for me. Years later, when I was a pastoral intern, I decided to practice Lent again. I gave up coffee, figuring I depended on that way too much. Turns out I was right! Every day at about 6:30, I would get just the worst pounding headache.
This time it was more consciences about what it was. I did research on the history of Lent. I was thinking increasingly more about the methodological questions of ritual and tradition in the practices of biblical faith. As any good protestant, I was raised with an allergic reaction to anything not in the Bible. Yet, what I found made me realize the problematic nature of evangelical understandings of ritual and tradition.
While Lent is not spoken of in the Bible, for as long as there has been Christianity, there seems to have been some kind of fasting before Easter. You can look up the various histories of Lent, and you will find the history is quite messy. It happened in varying forms and duration until its normative form of 40 days.
What is the place of traditions that Christians hold that are not in the Bible? Does it mean they are all illegitimate, ipso facto? This cannot be the case because much of what protestants hold to is not found in the Bible. After all, the canon of Scripture, the list of Scriptures, is not in the Bible. The canon of Scripture is the decision of the church, held on by tradition. It did not make the Bible, but the church did recognize the Bible, where there is no criteria in the Bible itself. The church that canonized the Bible did not seem to have a problem with Lent. The creeds are not from the Bible, but are considered essential summaries about the core of biblical faith. Doctrinal language like “Trinity” or “two-natures” is not found in the Bible, but help the Christian make sense out of what is in the Bible.
Look around your church and you will see a plenitude of traditions, practices, artifacts, etc. that are not found in the Bible, but no one makes a fuss about. Why? While these may be traditions, they are useful traditions or at least banal ones. They are traditions compatible and conducive to Scripture and the church’s mandate of following Christ.
We are traditioned beings. Anything we hand on is a tradition. Christmas is a tradition. Canada Day is a tradition. Cooking is a tradition. Education is a tradition. And also, how we uniquely worship is a tradition. It is a tradition because someone handed on this materials and practices to another to carry them on. To say that tradition is bad is to incorrectly understand the nature of humans as situated historical beings.
Believe it or not Scripture is a tradition: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you [literally, “traditioned”], whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Scripture so happens to be the highest tradition, our authority over all others, but it is “traditioned” nevertheless. The church had to collect it, preserve it, canonize it, interpret it, and teaching, generation to generation. That is a tradition.
The question is not rather we should have traditions, it is a question of whether they are good or not. It is not the case of whether they are all found in the Bible either, because there are lots of traditions, as I said, that are not directly found in the Bible that people don’t see as problematic. If you look in the Bible for the exact pattern for how to order a worship service or run a church business meeting, you will be searching in vain. While Power Point and Robert’s Rule of Order are hardly inspired, they are useful tools and practices that we continue to use.
We carry on any tradition that is useful to helping us live out Christ. We should be living out the practices directly found in Scripture that apply today, obviously, but that does not mean there are other practices and traditions that will help us live the Bible out better as well. And if a practice does not help us live out Christ, we should be ready to get rid of it (that is the Reformation impulse). Lent is a practice, if done for the right intention, like many post-biblical or extra-biblical traditions, are not in the Bible but deeply compatible and conducive to the teachings of the Bible.
Lent if practiced in the right spirit is well inside biblical principles. Scripture teaches us to fast. Check. Scripture teaches us to worship Christ with devotion. Check. Scripture calls us to self-sacrifice as an act of worship. Check. Scripture observes periods of devotion and fasting over 40 days. Check. All the early church did was place said fast before Easter, which seems like an appropriate time as any.
Many dislike that Lent is a ritual. Again, ritual action is constitutive of our humanity. We brush our teeth. We mow our lawns. We eat at regular intervals. We fix our behaviour to important dates. Our lives are situated in rituals. Rituals, good rituals, carry memory and meaning. Many people have left the church because it is a bunch of “rituals” and then wonder why their lives have less meaning. God commanded regular actions so that we remember him. A ritual, whether celebrating your spouses’ birthday or singing Amazing Grace, is a way of remembering something meaningful. The question is not whether we have rituals, but whether we will do our rituals well and with the right intentions.
All we should be concerned about then is not the practice of Lent itself, but the condition of the hearts that do the practicing.
If a practice is done to bring you closer to Christ, like Lent, and is compatible with biblical principles, then by the liberty of the Spirit, do it. To be afraid to would be, ironically, the same fear that drove Paul’s opponents to cling to the Law.
If you are living out matters that are meaningless, following them begrudgingly, or worse, perhaps you are doing them to make yourself feel more spiritual, even if what you are doing is found in the Bible, you need to re-examine yourself. God commanded the Sabbath, but Isaiah reports God denouncing it for how the people practiced them (Isa. 1:14).
The last few years I have given up coffee and TV. Coffee caused crazy headaches, and it made me depend on God’s grace through the day in weird and wonderful ways. It was a moment by moment reminder to pray and thank God for his sacrifice of love for me. I also started breaking the fast on Sundays. “Let your Sundays be as joyous as your Lent is sober” goes an Anglican proverb. Try it. I started looking forward to Sunday with a new zest.
Giving up TV, what I am doing this year and last year, has allowed me to refocus my mind on Scripture and prayer. I hope your Lent does the same.
I hope Christ is present to you as you draw close to him.
I hope that you are able to participate in Lent, not be works but by grace.
May the same love that gave his everything for you, be kindled in your soul as you give up just a small thing this Lent.
May all you do, all we do, glorify the God who died on the cross for our sin.