“You don’t celebrate Lent?” My friend was incredulous. Surely, everyone who was religious celebrates Lent! In recent years, Lent has become an even more popular event. In our culture, we have a non-religious version of this tradition. But as it turns out, no, that’s not true. Though I love a good pączki (thank you, Poland!), I won’t be joining in the festivities.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time for a nuanced conversation with my friend. But here is what I would have liked to have said to her. Here are three reasons I don’t celebrate Lent—one historical, one biblical, and one spiritual.
Historically speaking, Lent is outside my convictions about the nature of the Christian Church. It is a practice tied intimately to the Roman Catholic Church. And as a Baptist, my roots lie on the opposite side of the Reformation fountainhead. For Catholics, it was part of the liturgical calendar that called for forty days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for the celebration of Easter. During the middle ages, these pious acts became entangled with a work-righteousness mindset and was eventually required for believers by the Church (Canons 1249, 1250, 1251).*
Other denominations formally celebrate Lent as well (e.g., Anglicans). This is often out of traditions associated with the liturgical church calendar. So, I’m not saying that everyone, everywhere has the same view of Lent. But it’s clear why the Reformers condemned the forced practice and its popular association with earning favor with God.
This leads to the biblical rationale for eschewing Lent. The New Testament is clear that a practice not commanded by God should never be laid on believers as a command. There is zero precedent for Lent in the Bible. In fact, there’s no rationale for celebrating Christmas, Good Friday, or even Easter. Does that mean that setting aside time to reflect and remember is special ways is wrong? No, if it honors God (Rom 14:6).
But, some Christians see no reason to any of celebrate these holidays. That’s okay. Paul says we can disagree about these things (Rom 14:1–5). But he also says we should not force extrabiblical practices on others, which “indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:13; see 2:16–23).
Many look down on those who do not practice Lent and see it as a failing of “low church” practices. Because evangelical churches are not connected to the “high church” liturgical forms, they are somehow lacking in spirituality. Yet, is Lent really necessary as an aid for spiritual experience? Consider one prominent evangelical church’s explanation for Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent):
[The] Purposes of Ash Wednesday [is to]to reflect on our sin and the resultant death that reigns in us, and our need for Jesus to save us; to renew our commitment to daily repentance — to “die daily,” as Paul said (1 Corinthians 15:31); to remember that Christ conquered sin and death. . . . Ashes are a reminder, in Scripture, of our mortality and frailty resulting from the curse of the Fall (Genesis 3:19; 18:27). The Bible also uses ashes as a sign of sorrow or repentance (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26). Putting ashes on your forehead in the sign of the cross is not some kind of magic charm. It is simply a visible reminder of our condition and the power of the cross to forever change that condition.
Reading this, I have to ask, “Doesn’t God already give us prescribed ways to remember and display the gospel in our lives?” Repentance along with remembering Christ and our fragility as mortal people marred by sin are all essential parts of regular worship in evangelical churches. At least, they should be (more on this in a minute). In the celebration of baptism, and by participation in the Lord’s Supper we even see these things visibly displayed. And the preaching of the gospel makes their meaning clear. Moreover, Jesus expected prayer and fasting to be a regular part of his people’s lives (Matt 6:5–18). So, what is seen as somehow unique during Lent should be normative in the regular life of Christians as they walk together before God.
Finally, there is a spiritual reason I don’t celebrate Lent. Though by no means an exhaustive or scientific poll, but only on rare occasions do I ever meet someone who actually knows why they are giving something up for Lent. Biblical fasting is replacing food** for a time in communion with God in prayer. But from interactions with many people over the years, I’ve seen understandings that swings from Lent being a way to show love for God to it being a way to off-set personal sins. Many are not actually spending any more time with God in the process.
This renders Lent somewhat useless, if not harmful. After all, if the practice is actually drawing attention away from the finished work of Christ to bring us to God and distances people from engaging God in prayer and word through faith in Christ, this is a bad thing.
So, why are some many people drawn to it today? Why does it seem so appealing for an increasing number of evangelicals? If I had to guess, I would say it’s because their Sunday experience has turned from true worship, centered around the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the ordinances to something more me-centered. It’s become more about the individual experience of emotion, devoid of truth—the very thing God says should lead us to an authentic experience. (Maybe this is why almsgiving is no longer seemed to be encouraged?)
If people are not led to the waters of Scripture to drink deeply and be satisfied, then it’s not surprising that they would seek a sense of the spiritual in something else. Carl Truman observes:
“The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.”
In the end, I see nothing to be gained by the practice of Lent. And what little benefit someone might experience does not outweigh the long-term confusion that may come in a practice separated from the normal patterns of Christian living and its association with even more divergent theology and practices.
So, do I do anything different during this so-called Easter season? If you desire to enjoy Resurrection Sunday to its fullest, in place of Lent, I would recommend three things.
First, remember that every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. This is why believers gather together for corporate worship on the first day of the week—it is the day our Savior rose from the dead! Every Lord’s Day is meant to be a reminder of the gospel. Consider what implications this has for how we live our lives, not just on Sunday, but every day (Col 3:1–4).
Second, go to Gospels and read about the death and resurrection of Christ. Consider how each Gospel writer presents Jesus. The essentials are the same—betrayal, trial, rejection, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. Yet, each Gospel writer has a specific audience in mind. What are they emphasizing that you might need to hear this year? You may even notice some things you haven’t fully considered (Matt 27:52–53!).
Finally, reflect on passages that describe the elements of Christian worship, namely preaching, prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Refresh yourself on what God says is taking place during these events and how they could affect your life with him. Just on the Lord’s Supper alone, consider that the wine is never called wine (or grape juice!), but always the cup. How does our cup connect to Jesus’ cup (Luke 22:14–23; 39–46)? A rich treasure of spiritually nourishing time with God in his word awaits! Here are a few passages to get your started:
Preaching: Mark 1:14–15; 1 Cor 1:17—2:5; 1 Pet 1:13–25
Prayer: Luke 11:1–13; 18:1–8; Heb 4:14–16
Baptism: Rom 6:1–4; Col 2:11–15; 1 Pet 3:21
Lord’s Supper: Matt 26:26–29; 1 Cor 10:14–22; 11:17–32
In all that we do, let us remember to fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2).
* See the discussion in Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Volume 3, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 208–13.
** Sometimes, other good things could be given up for seasons of prayer as well (e.g., see 1 Cor 7:1–5).