What is Lent? Should Christians observe it?

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By Larry Short

“Lent” has been a traditional Catholic/liturgical observance, but in recent times has been gaining more traction among evangelical Christians. What is it, exactly, and why is it growing in popularity?

Lent is the period of time (40 days in length, not counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday (which fell this year on Feb. 22) and Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter, and the day marking Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Last Supper, just prior to the Friday of His passion).

The day before Lent begins is known as “Shrove Tuesday,” or more commonly “Fat Tuesday,” because it is sometimes regarded as a day of feasting and celebration before the observance of Lent. Wikipedia says: “The traditional purpose of Lent is the penitential preparation of the believer — through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Its institutional purpose is heightened in the annual commemoration of Holy Week, marking the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events of the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, which then culminates in the celebration on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

As evangelical Christians I think we must guard against the idea of “penitence” or “penance,” which would say that we must undergo some sort of suffering to pay for our sins. In His death on the cross, Jesus has paid for those sins, once and for all, burying them in the deepest sea! The idea that we could possibly pay even an iota of the sin debt we owe God, ourselves, is incredibly ignorant at best and arrogantly prideful at worst.

But I think the other things on Wikipedia’s list … prayer, repentance, almsgiving (giving to the poor), and self-denial (within reason) … can all be spiritually healthy things. While only the more liturgically-oriented among Christian churches have typically formally observed Lent, a number of Christians in less liturgically-oriented churches (such as our own) have taken up the practice informally, because they have found its benefits akin to the biblical benefits of fasting, and it helps prepare one spiritually for Easter. In fact, the 40-day period associated with Lent is thought to correspond with Christ’s 40-day fast and wilderness temptation, at the beginning of His public ministry. Many Christians therefore find Lent a good time to identify with Christ and to focus on prayer and spiritual goals.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of fasting, the concept is to deprive oneself of food or some usual practice or luxury for the purpose of devotion to prayer and spiritual goals. In my life I have occasionally used fasting to sharpen my prayer focus and to demonstrate (to the Lord) seriousness in my intent to approach Him in utter dependence for His help and intervention. Jesus gave the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) to demonstrate the importance of us praying with dogged persistence and faith. In my case, I find it useful to set a specific prayer goal and commit to the Lord that I am going to deny myself something that I normally enjoy, for a period of 40 days, in order to identify with Christ in His dependence upon His Father and to communicate the seriousness of my desire for Him to hear my entreaty.

If we do fast, though, an important point is not to do so for the sake of being seen (by others) as “spiritual!” That was what the Pharisees did. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that fasting, like prayer and giving, should be done as privately as possible, directed for God to notice, not those around us! (By the way, did you ever notice that He says there: “when you fast” … just as He says “when you pray” and “when you give.” We definitely should be practicing each of these spiritual disciplines in order to be healthy!)

Speaking of health, as an aside: I also find Lent incredibly useful for setting and achieving health goals! This year, for instance, I am committing to give up foods which I enjoy but would nonetheless probably be healthier without (red meat and pork, refined starches and carb-heavy foods, sweets/desserts, cheeses, etc.) and substituting in their place healthier foods (fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, fish and poultry, whole grains). My goal is to lose 2 pounds/week and help stabilize blood sugar and blood pressure, both of which I struggle with to a certain extent due to lifestyle and heredity issues. I am also committing to exercise an hour a day, and to use this exercise time as part of my prayer focus time.

Last year I found that by reducing calories and eating healthier, along with regular exercise, helped me to lose weight and feel stronger both physically and spiritually.

(Probably something I should do all year ’round, and not just during Lent, right? Maybe someday I will have that kind of self-discipline!)

Others I know who observe Lent have found creative ways of self-denial that don’t necessarily involve food or drink. Some give up various forms of entertainment … computer games, movies, TV or listening to music. Others give up eating out at restaurants, getting a daily coffee at Starbucks, or similar things (which also helps them save money which then can be contributed to a specific spiritual purpose!). Still others give up things which have become a habit but which they don’t necessarily consider incredibly healthy, such as social media (several friends gave up Facebook last year during Lent).

And others skip the self-denial part, but instead focus on certain spiritual goals related to giving, reading, devotion, meditation, memorization, Bible study, prayer, etc.

I think an important point is that Christ would not wish us to be “legalistic” about observances such as Lent. If it helps us sharpen the focus of our relationship with Him, then great! But it shouldn’t be a negative burden or expectation that we place on ourselves or others. He came to bring us freedom from such things.

Are you celebrating Lent this year, or have you in the past? What has been your experience? I’d love to hear more, so please comment on this blog (below), or go to Elim’s Facebook site and comment on the wall associated with this “Last Word.” I am praying that if you decide to observe Lent in some fashion, either this year or in the years to come, it will be a blessing that will move your relationship with Jesus forward in big ways!

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