Giving Up Lent for Lent

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I’d never heard of Lent until I was in college, and even then it was spoken of as “something Catholics do.” Over the past few years, however, I can’t spend more than a few minutes on social media in the month of February without seeing someone’s post about what they are “giving up for Lent” this year. It’s a trend that many evangelicals have now written about, including a recent Lifeway study. (See also here and here.)

I confess that the rising tides of Lenten observance once swept my wife and me along with the current. For a few years we joined the throngs of people who willingly ‘gave up’ something in preparation for Easter. We also prayed every day, and we read from a delightful Lenten devotional by one of my favorite scholars. It was a mostly positive experience.

But this year (like last year), I’m giving up Lent for Lent. Here are some reasons why.

Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe

Lent isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but Lent does involve fasting, and Jesus certainly had some things to say about that:

  • 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. (Matthew 6:16-18)

In other words, Jesus says that when we fast we shouldn’t do anything weird to announce our fasting to the world. But now comes the Lenten fast, which begins each year with a service where people’s faces are disfigured with ashes in order to show the world how somber and penitential we are. Adding to this a slurry of  public declarations on social media about what we are giving up for Lent, and you’ve got almost exactly the opposite practice from what Jesus prescribes.

It hardly seems fitting to memorialize the triumph of the resurrection with self-affliction.

More Grace, Not Less

The religious calendar for God’s people is laid out in the Old Testament, and many people are surprised to discover (when they get around to reading it) that there was only one day per year, the Day of Atonement, when God required his people to fast in self-denial (Leviticus 23:27). God did call for special periods of fasting on particular occasions (Jeremiah 36:9; Ezra 8:21), but he only set aside one day on Israel’s religious calendar for fasting. Every other recorded holiday was a feast day!

The relevant question is, Why should the coming of Christ make things harder for God’s people? It hardly seems fitting to memorialize the triumph of the resurrection with self-affliction for forty days. The Old Testament saints had only one such day, yet the coming of Christ has brought us more grace (John 1:16-17), more freedom (Galatians 4:1-4) and more light (John 8:12). Maybe it makes more sense for all that grace, freedom and truth to feel more like glory, which looks more like gratitude and generosity (Acts 2:46)—not forty days without sugar or gluten.

Fighting the Biggest Battles

Traditionally the Lenten fast is intended to counter our excessive attachment to material things. While sins like gluttony, greed and other addictions are always in need of addressing, I think even more sinister problems plague us today — and fighting these particular battles requires a different strategy. Both ideas are false, both are deadly and both are the kind of problems that Lenten observance is more likely to make worse instead of better.

First, many think God is a cosmic killjoy who likes to say “No” to whatever is enjoyable. Just because. In reality, God is the very source of joy! He’s an eternally cascading waterfall of pleasure (Psalm 16:11). He is the fountain of everything good and beautiful and true (James 1:17), and “he richly provides you with all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). And even when God does tell us No—as good fathers must do from time to time—it’s only because he has something even better in store for us. All of his No’s are invitations to greater Yes’s, not calls to deprive ourselves of enjoyable things because God likes to see us suffer. Instead of extoling God’s grace, however, Lent can easily feel more like a forty-day timeout from God’s gifts. Not exactly the message we want to send to the world.

Second, most people still believe you can earn God’s favor through religious acts of piety. This is because religion is the default mode of the human heart, rendering the self-denial of Lent prime real estate for a heart in search of (self-) justification. Such self-righteousness, however well-intended, tends to place more importance on what we do for God than what he has done for us in Christ. Religious hearts gravitate toward “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21), which “indeed have an appearance of wisdom,” the apostle Paul says, “with its self-imposed worship, false humility and harsh treatment of the body, but it is of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). I wonder if we concentrated on enjoying grace for forty days what might happen instead!

If You’re Gonna Observe Lent Anyway

I cherish the freedom (Protestant) Christians have to practice or abstain from Lent. In fact, a few years ago I wrote an article on how the observation of Lent isn’t intrinsically evil. If you fast in accordance with Jesus’ commands (Matthew 6:16-18), if you remember that God’s gifts are good and if you understand that fasting doesn’t make you righteous (only Jesus can), then you are free to observe Lent to the glory of God. But if you find that Lent isn’t helpful, or if, like me, you fear that Lent may be sending the wrong message in this time and place, then maybe you should join me in giving up Lent for Lent this year (1 Corinthians 6:12).

In either case, let’s remember that Jesus died to forgive us and set us free from our selfish slavery to sin (2 Corinthians 5:15), and he is doing this in the lives of his people even now, whether or not they observe Lent (Philippians 1:6). That’s great news, isn’t it?

This article originally published on Feb. 27, 2017.

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimke Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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