I don’t do Lent.
More clearly, I do not observe the Lenten Season during the forty days before Easter (Resurrection) Sunday.
It seems an anti-Christian thing to admit, but there it is. And it’s hard for me to share because I am not one that enjoys conflict. I’m uncomfortable with controversy and division.
The three main practices of Lent, I thoroughly agree with: Fasting (to learn to rely more wholly on God), Prayer and Meditation (to contemplate the redemptive work on the cross by Jesus), and Giving to the Poor (emulating the example of Christ).
And further, I agree with most of Christendom that spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting and giving to the poor are important to add action, or feet if you will, to one’s desire to imitate Christ in the desire to “decrease so that He may increase”. (John 3:30)
However, there’s a flurry of business about Lent that blows about and creates more of an atmosphere of religion than personal contemplation and intimacy with our savior.
It’s blustery and confusing to me and, like trying to see clearly in a dust-storm, and it makes it difficult to see why everyone’s doing it. As a life-long Christian kid, PK and over-thinker, when “everyone’s doing it” I’m instantly compelled to dig in my sneakers and ask my favorite question: Why?
Here’s my short list of why I don’t observe Lent:
1. Everyone talks about what they’re giving up for Lent.
People are posting and tweeting and discussing in the coffee line at church (unless, of course, coffee is the addiction they’re denying themselves, then they might not be there, maybe they’re in the restroom line or by the drinking fountain) what they’re giving up: TV, caffeine, red meat, sugar, dessert, or the wilder ones like cosmetics or comic books or texting.
But isn’t this in direct contrast to the teaching of Jesus, who’s very death we’re supposed to be contemplating?
Jesus said (paraphrase mine), If you’re fasting, don’t broadcast it. Keep it private and don’t piously appear deprived with the intent of being recognized that you’re depraved. (Matthew 6:16-18)
A few paces back in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches about giving to the poor: do it with subtle grace, and quietly, so as not to draw attention to yourself. (Matthew 6:2-4)
And Jesus has this to say about prayer: Pray often and in secret, and with your face and heart toward God using few words and an attitude of worship. (Matthew 6: 5-15)
2. Masses of people party like it’s 1999 before Lent.
I understand that most observers aren’t flashing rhinestone brassieres and doing jello shots the night before Lent, I really do.
But the idea that Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are somewhat connected makes those of us who celebrate Christmas with gift-giving and hints of Santa Claus coming down the chimney look like Mennonites in comparison. Even in less grandiose fashion, Lent observers will order a steak dinner or a quad vanilla mocha the day before Lent begins, as a last hurrah of sorts. Is this the equivalent of a death-row criminal’s “last meal”? My whole life this has confused me.
The discipline of Lent is not to binge and purge as if we have a spiritual eating disorder, it is meant to help us adjust our fine focus on the outpouring of Jesus’ love for us.
Jesus said: Simply let your Yes be Yes. Just that (Matthew5:37); and be the lamps that shine my light into this world, doing love actively so that everyone can see and give praise to the Father (Matthew 5:16); and remember, unless your devotion to all things legally righteous surpasses even those who teach and dole out the word of the law, you’ll not see heaven, because I’m after a different kind of righteousness altogether (Matthew 5:20).
Righteousness wrought by the wringing out of Christ’s blood. This is the righteousness that Paul speaks of in Romans 6. The problem that divides us from God in the first place is sin, which the law revealed and Jesus, mercifully, freed us from remaining slaves.
Lent should inspire not the the giving up of small idols, like rock music or cola, and the premontory bacchanal practice of carnival (literally the end of meat) but the flinging off of pornography, pride, selfish ambition, contentiousness, gossip so we can run desperately, freely, naked of all sin, into the cover of his grace.
3. Lent lies in the shadow of the Old Covenant instead of in the Light of Grace.
The law was perfect and it’s main intent was to draw a framework for salvation and make a way for sinful humanity to come into right relationship with a perfectly Holy God. It was intended to protect and provide for the people of Israel, who were called by God, and anyone else who chose to become part of nation of God by submitting to it’s dictums. The law perfectly pointed to the coming of Messiah: the feasts, the sacrifices, the sad scapegoat–it all led to Christ Jesus (Leviticus and Numbers). He fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17) and gave, with every precious drop of his blood this: GRACE.
Hebrew 10:11-18 explains the phenomena of grace in regards to legalism this way:
“Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties: again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.
Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I wil write them on their minds.” Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.”
This is mercy undeserved and unearned. Romans 9:16 tells us succinctly, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy”.
I know that most observers of Lent realize that salvation is a gift of grace, not of works, just like it says in Ephesians 2:8-9, however, why would we choose to do in a forty-day season three disciplines that are to be a natural response to grace as we move and breathe as new creations in Christ Jesus?
All through scripture God makes it clear:
I desire contrition, not sacrifice and mercy always triumphs over judgement (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13,James 2:12)
This is true religion, that you…. provide for the widows and the poor and live according to the moral system set before you by Christ (James 1:27).
It’s the work of the Spirit in you that enables you to do the good things I have planned for you. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Come near to Me, submit to my truth and learn from my love and I will come near to you. I always give more grace. (James 4:6-10)
We live in the full light of the grace and the perfect propitiation that the Law merely glimmered about. The inner rooms of the tabernacle, and the later the Temple, contained oil lamps and lampstands, symbols of the Light that was to come. John 1 tells us that the light has come! Jesus called himself the light of the world!
Why dance in the shadowy candle-flickers of something that could be legalism when we can move freely in the Light!
4. Lent falls short, because religion can’t save us.
A private, personal season of fasting, prayer, and giving beyond one’s personal norm is beautiful, transformational and good. Usually, these private seasons are prompted by the Holy Spirit and when we trust him enough to fall into his rhythm of grace, the emptying and the filling, the focus and purpose, then we become soft like clay in The Potter’s hands, ready to be made into something useful for his purpose and glory. (Romans 9:21)
But what, really, does asking a congregation of 400 to practice Lent during the forty days before Easter Sunday do? It forces conformation. It focuses on the saved and not the savior. It provides a feeling and sense of activity without guaranteeing all 400 church members are “all in”. It is a religious exercise. A well-intended and possibly productive exercise, but that is all.
Lent very well should be the lifestyle we Christians choose year-round.
Yes, the observation of Lent and the ensuing Passion Week do, and rightly so, stir up our cooling embers and breathe life and fire into our souls. I get that. I understand that is at the heart of Lent.
But I know myself. I know my tendency to choose comfort. (Ephesians 5:29) I do it nightly when I crawl into bed, soft and downy and warm. I do it daily when I feed myself good food and drink fresh, clean water. I take vitamins and exercise and engage in healthy relationships and enjoy learning. I choose so much good for myself.
If I was really to practice Lent, would I choose to give up sugar (with the additional incentive of losing a few pounds?) or would I choose what’s really required of me, to live as Jesus did — with nothing but the clothes on his back and in the end, giving everything and trusting God completely–relying on God for every breath?
That’s why Jesus knew to teach us this: Love me by loving others like you love yourselves.
He didn’t come to give us more religion. He doesn’t need our efforts of monasticism.
Jesus knows it’s in our nature to choose ourselves every time. Even when we choose for the good of others, we’re choosing to make it livable for ourselves. I think of the poor widow, who gave her last mite (penny) and was praised by Jesus (Luke 21:2). I think of Mary, sister of Lazarus, who poured out her life-savings on the feet of Christ to anoint him for his future burial, despite the harsh criticism of the disciples (John 11:2). I think, and I hope, that I am as devoted and desperately in love with my savior, but I know I fail more often that flourish in my worship of him.
That is the stinging, pervasive nature of this thing called sin, the disease that plagues us all and no discipline can eradicate–all, only Jesus, can accomplish this. Soli deo gloria.
Jesus fasted and fought the devil in the wilderness for forty days because he trusted the Father. He knew I couldn’t do that. As much as I might claim to live for him, everyone and God knows I couldn’t survive a day or two under those conditions (at best!)
I, myself, need to better understand God’s mercy and offer a contrite heart before I try to present a sacrifice of self-denial. I am encouraged by Paul to offer my whole self as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6), and yes, a forty-day trial period can be revealing about what that requires. Paul knew better than anyone that this Christian lifestyle is an on-going business of submission, with plenty of failure mixed in. (What a comfort to read of Paul’s confession of his internal battle with self and sin in Romans 7:13-22.)
I want my whole living life to be lenten, little by little, as the Light shines in and the Living water washes over me. He alone saved me, transformed and gave me purpose.
I know He can make me soft-hearted, pliable and willing to serve Him, according to His will and timing.
And although I fail so often, Jesus knows I my heart’s desire is to honor his death that gave me life.
I ask for strength to live lentenly, lavishly, like He did.
Friends, I know many of you observe Lent and my intent is not to undermine the spirit of the observance. Like I said, I overthink and question and dig around. Let me know your thoughts, teach me, as we follow Christ together.