Lent is the 40-day season leading up to the celebration of Easter. The season calls us to an intentional time of repentance and self-reflection. We sit uncomfortably with our need for redemption and salvation. Lent holds before us all questions such as: are there temptations we need to step away from?
Is there a confession of sin that is needing to be made? Have I wandered from God’s presence? Lent calls us to penitence, and in doing so, prepares us to receive the redemptive love of Jesus on Easter morning.
Most people associate the season of Lent with the call to “give something up.” One gives up an activity, or a type of food, for the entirety of the 40 days. Strict adherence to this practice, however, can easily twist the season into an exercise of empty self-righteousness.
This undoubtedly begs the question: is fasting required if one is to observe Lent? Does one have to give up their favorite food? After all, what exactly does my morning coffee have to do with my relationship with Jesus anyways?
The deeper question to ask is: what does the Bible say about the season of Lent? Given that not every Christian denomination observes this season, this question can become quite pronounced.
If one decides to observe the season of Lent, how might they do so in a biblical and God-honouring way? Below are three things to consider.
1. Is Lent Biblical?
The first thing we must recognize is that the Bible does not speak about “the season of Lent.” That is to say, the word “Lent” is not found in Scripture. This liturgical season was formalized around the year 325, as the early church began to structure its corporate and liturgical life.
While we find no scriptural exhortation to observe a “Lenten fast,” Scripture does speak about observing times of penitence and prayer. The season of Lent, therefore, is but an expression of a larger biblical exhortation.
Observing a season of penitence has been a long-established practice of God’s people. Furthermore, seasons of penitence typically include the disciplines of prayer, confession, and fasting.
We see this consistently in Scripture. Many of the prophets articulate the need for penitential acts as a way to prepare for the great day of the Lord. Through the prophet Joel, for example, God calls Israel to “return to me with all your heart with fasting, and weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:12).
Similarly, John the Baptist calls people to prepare for the Messiah through individual acts of repentance (Luke 3:3). In each case, the approaching day of salvation is to be met with an intentional time of preparation. Such inward preparation is often outwardly shown by fasting.
Lenten fasts, therefore, while not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, belong to the wider call for God’s people to prepare for their salvation. Fasting signifies a recognition that our life is sustained by God alone.
In turning away from the sources of worldly comfort and sustenance, we recognize that Jesus alone is our ultimate satisfaction. In this way, we can conclude that Lent, and by extension Lenten fasts, are indeed biblical.
2. The Heart of Lent
If we are to give something up for Lent, the obvious question becomes “what are we to give up? Too easily does Lent become a time of merely stepping away from the treats enjoyed in regular life, coffee, chocolate, or candy. Fasting, of course, is not merely food-related.
In our media-saturated world, it is becoming popular to give up Facebook or other social media platforms. We take our 40 days away from posts and shares, likes, and comments. Others may choose to give up television for the 40 days.
These acts of fasting are not bad by any means. In fact, all of us would probably do well to step away from the idolatrous grip of self-satisfaction and consumerism. There may even be spiritual reasons to step away from our everyday treats.
Giving up our favorite treats and comforts might signify a dislodging of our idolatries. Perhaps our intemperate love for the treats of life is a sign of our spiritual off-centeredness.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe we give up our treats because we know it’s manageable and easy? After all, do candy bars and potato chips really get in the way of our relationship with Jesus?
Does any of us actually confess, “Sorry Jesus, I’d love to spend more time with you, but I’m too busy eating a Kit Kat”? Probably not. The danger of Lenten fasts is that we actually use them to remain distanced from the Lord; they keep us from searching the deep things of our hearts.
Like all outward acts of faith, a Lenten fast can easily be twisted into nothing more than empty action. Blindly deciding to give up a comforting treat or a social activity, therefore, betrays the very purpose of the Lenten season.
It matters not if we go without popcorn or coffee if our hearts remain unaffected. An empty observance is not the fast the Lord calls us to. Again, the prophet Joel is helpful. Joel cries out, “Rend your heart and not your garments, return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2:13).
What good is a fast if, after we have proclaimed our withdrawal, we live our lives with near-regular routines? The fast holds no transformation.
The observance of Lent is about the state of our hearts before God. To rend our hearts is to hold them bare before the Lord, and to be willing to have our hearts exposed. Thus, observing a Lenten fast is more an internal activity rather than an outward one.
Rather than thinking about creative fasts we may engage in, we are called to consider how we may draw closer to God in intentional acts of devotion.
3. The Challenge in Lent
For our Lenten journey to be truly transformative we must push past easy observances and allow the season to challenge us. Lent involves a journey to the cross. This journey to the cross is to be marked by a longing for divine closeness.
Peter reminds us that “Christ died for sin once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The truth we re-hear at Easter is the truth we long to embrace today, that Jesus ushers us into the heart of God. This, and this alone, is the purpose of Lent.
Lent, therefore, is a time to look at the relational closeness between ourselves and our Lord. Where do we need to grow closer with Jesus? Where do our actions, our habits, or our attitudes, get in the way of the call to faithful living?
Such questions are uncomfortable, but necessary, as we are all imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Sin occurs in a myriad of ways.
We sometimes care too much about ourselves than our neighbors; we take up self-indulgent appetites; we live out of anger, frustration, or doubt; we act uncharitably or unkindly; we forsake justice and fairness.
The yearly season of such self-reflection is beneficial for our spiritual lives, Lent calls us, therefore, to assess our lives and our walk with God.
Our journey to the cross calls us to step away from whatever obstructs our closeness with the Lord. Lenten observance, therefore, should address the habits, false worships, and misplaced loves that keep us from experiencing the gracious intimacy with God.
It is only as we address these areas that we can fully enter the celebration of Easter as transformed people.
For further reading:
Is Lent Really in the Bible?
What Should I Give Up for Lent This Year?
How Long Does Lent Last?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/eddiestock
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.