GIVING UP LENT FOR LENT
Written by Doug Ponder on February 7, 2016
There and Back Again: A Lenten Tale
Like most Protestants who grew up in the South, my family didn’t observe Lent. In fact, I’d never even 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’ve found that 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.”
I confess that the rising tides of Lenten observance eventually swept my wife and I along with the current. For a few years we joined the throngs of people who willingly give up something for forty days in preparation for Easter. We also prayed every day, and we read from a delightful Lenten devotional by one of my favorite scholars. On the whole, it was a mostly positive experience.
But this year (like last year), I’m giving up Lent for Lent. Here are some reasons why.
He Who Laughs Last
Lent is never 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.” (Matt. 6:16-18)
In other words, Jesus says that when we fast we shouldn’t do anything weird to our appearance to make it obvious what we’re doing. Instead, we should fast “in secret” without announcing it to the world. Comes now 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 they are. This is just the sort of thing that makes you think the devil may have a sense of humor.
More Grace, Not Less
The religious calendar for God’s people is laid out quite clearly in the Old Testament, and many people are surprised to discover (when they get around to reading it) that there was only one day a year, the Day of Atonement, when God required his people to fast in self-denial (Lev. 23:27). God did call for special periods of fasting on rare occasions (Jer. 36:9; Ezra 8:21), but he only set aside one day on Israel’s religious calendar for fasting. Every other holiday was a feast day!
So why should the coming of Christ make things worse for God’s people? It hardly seems fitting to memorialize the triumph of the resurrection with sad faces and 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 (Gal. 4:1-4), and more light (John 8:12). Call me crazy, but I think all that glorious grace, freedom, and truth should taste and feel like glory, which looks like gratitude and generosity (Acts 2:46)—not forty days without alcohol 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, there are even more sinister problems that plague us today. First, many think God is a cosmic killjoy who likes to say “No” to whatever is enjoyable. Second, many believe you can earn God’s favor through religious acts of piety. Both ideas are false, both are deadly, and both are the kind of problems that Lenten observance tends to make worse instead of better.
In reality God is not a killjoy; he is the very source of joy. He’s like an eternally cascading waterfall of pleasure (Ps. 16:11). He is the fountain of everything good and beautiful and true (Jas. 1:17), and “he richly provides you with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 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 mind. All of his No’s are invitations to even greater Yes’s, not calls to deprive yourself of enjoyable things because God likes to see you suffer. Yet this is not the message that Lent tends to communicate. Instead of extoling God’s grace and generosity, Lent feels more like a forty-day timeout from God’s gifts.
On top of that misunderstanding, people are afflicted with a special kind of self-righteousness that, when mixed with the self-denial of Lent, explodes like gasoline dumped on a bonfire. This self-righteousness places more importance on what we do for God than what he has done for us in Christ. Incidentally, this is the same reason why health food fads latch on like leeches to the lives of so many. Those movements preach the message, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21), which “may 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” (Col. 2:23). In other words Lent can’t make you righteous, only Jesus can.
If You’re Gonna Observe Lent Anyway…
A few years ago I wrote an article on how the observation of Lent doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I still think that if you fast in accordance with Jesus’ commands (Matt. 6:16-18), if you remember that God’s gifts are good, if you understand that fasting doesn’t make you righteous (and that only Jesus can), then you’re welcome to observe Lent to the glory of God. It’s a lawful practice you’re free to follow. But if you find it’s not helpful, or if (like me) you think it’s sending the wrong message in this time and place, then maybe you should join me in giving up Lent for Lent this year (1 Cor. 6:12).
But if you insist on observing Lent anyway, let me suggest something to give up this year instead of caffeine. As Pope Francis recently suggested, if you’re going to fast from anything for Lent, then fast from your indifference toward others. In truth, I suspect that most people won’t take the pontiff’s advice. Giving up selfishness is much harder than saying no to sugar. (And saying not to sugar is pretty hard, so what does that say about our selfishness?) Happily, even here the gospel speaks a better word: Jesus died to forgive us and set us free from our slavery to selfish sin (2 Cor. 5:15). Jesus is doing this in the lives of his people even now, whether or not they observe Lent (Phil. 1:6). And that’s great news, isn’t it?
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.