Understanding something of Lent may be helpful if friends ask us about it, but also so that we can assess it ourselves. This post explains what it is all about. Many Christians like to take on something to build their faith rather than give up something for Lent. So we start with some suggested resources if you'd like to give some time up to Easter thinking on all Christ has done.
1) The “youversion” Bible App has all sorts of Bible reading plans. You could choose a forty day one.
2) "Rooted" comprises 18 reflections covering the bredth of Christian belief. You can access them here as a pdf.
3) "The glory of the cross" reflections for Lent from John's Gospel by Tim Chester. Buy here. Also available in e-book.
4) “The forgotten cross” by Lee Gatiss is great book on the cross to buy, read and absorb here.
What is Lent?
Lent refers to the 40 day period (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter in which, historically, the church has remembered the 40 days Jesus prepared for his ministry by fasting in the desert. So it’s been seen as a time of:
1) spiritual preparation for Easter
2) self denial in order to devote one-self to God
Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) is the day before lent as it was the day Christians would use up whatever foods they were going to give up. The word “shrove” comes from “shrive” meaning “confess” sin. Ash Wednesday is the day lent begins, and is a day some Christians are marked in services with ash from burnt palm crosses as a sign of repentance – just as the Hebrews used to put ash on their heads in mourning.
Why do some make so little of Lent?
Many Protestant Christians don’t make much of Lent for the following reasons:
1) Lent can be unhelpful: The Bible specifically challenges those who make much of “human traditions” that are not commanded by God, and especially the tendency to look down on fellow Christians for not keeping certain religious days or for not fasting (Col 2v8, 16-18, 20-23). The danger in keeping Lent is that it makes the Christian feel proud for keeping it and condemning of those who don’t.
2) Lent can be powerless: We’re told that such regulations “have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col 2v23). The point is that they make us feel religious and even proud and self-righteous, but won’t really help us become more godly. Ironically, they can actually lead us from the true way to godliness, which is to focus on: (1) our hearts being devoted to Christ and the life of his coming kingdom, (2) our minds being set on those things because we understand that through Christ's death and resurrection our old self has died and we have a new self that is alive to God, (3) our wills seeking to put off the old self and put on the new as we follow the desires of the Spirit (Col 3v1-14)
3) Lent can be distracting: The reality is that in the light of this every Christian is called "daily" to “deny himself” and “take up his cross” in order to “follow” Christ (Lk 9v23). A focus on these things over a 40 day period can very easily diminish our awareness that we should be wholehearted in our devotion to Christ every day of every year.
4) Lent can be trivialising: Often what Lent boils down to is giving up something relatively insignificant such as chocolate or wine, and often more out of a concern for calories or health than for Jesus.
Can we observe Lent?
Having said all this, the Bible is clear that Christians are free to observe religious days and feasts if they feel they should. And those who don’t should not look down on those who do, nor urge them not to observe such things if it would go against their conscience (Rom 14v1-8).
Moreover, provided the above concerns are acknowledged, there seems no reason why a Christian might not use Lent for their spiritual benefit just as they might use the New Year to recommit to prayer, or allocate a week in May for a Christian conference, or a month to help in some sphere of service. The point is that we are free before God to do such things within the boundaries of his word.
So here are some suggestions on how you might use Lent this year if you would like to:
1) Give some time each day to a spiritual MOT, assessing where you are at with the Lord in terms of prayer, Bible reading, church attendance, financial giving, struggle with sin, evangelism etc – and most importantly with respect to your heart, mind and will. Then pray through all this, asking God to help you in these areas not just during Lent but beyond it.
2) Although you may not be able to give more time to prayer, Bible reading or Christian service in the long term, consider whether you might be able to for this forty days.
3) Similarly, why not make time to reading a good Christian book, perhaps on the cross, or to listening to some good sermons online.
4) Consider abstaining from something that is permissible for you, but that you think is genuinely detrimental to your walk with Christ. It might be TV, facebook, video games, clothes shopping, etc. This could free up time for the points above. But the point in abstaining from such things is to display to the Lord how much more you desire him, and ask him to break the power these things have over you or over your time.
Don’t tell anyone how you are observing Lent unless you have to – to keep yourself from pride and to keep them from looking down on you. Also, if a non-Christian friend asks you what Lent is all about, tell them it’s about Jesus being more important than anything else in the world. And then tell them why!