Just a few thoughts on the season of Lenten as it begins tomorrow. First of all, let me say that I am hardly qualified to speak about Lent. I was raised Southern Baptist and that background did not include such concepts as Lent or Ash Wednesday. When I was in college I actually became jealous of my believing friends who wore their ashes with such abandon for as many days as they would stick. In retrospect, I just thought it was cool. The truth is, I still think it’s cool, but Lenten has to be approached with a certain mindset or it becomes a meaningless ritual and discipline.
I was introduced to the concept of the Spiritual Disciplines by my friend Jeff Humphrey who loaned me Richard Foster’s classic book, A Celebration of Discipline. Now, the feast days, rituals, sacraments and ordinances of the church were not in his subject matter; the book is primarily aimed at bringing the ancient disciplines to bear in your personal spiritual flight. It wasn’t a very difficult leap to understand that the purposes of spiritual discipline applied to all forms, corporate or personal. Here’s what I have learned over time about the point of any spiritual discipline, including the practice and celebration of Lenten.
First of all, keep in mind the purpose of Lenten. The idea of forty days of fasting from something, feasting on Sabbaths, prayer and preparing yourself for Easter, Resurrection Sunday, is a good idea. The idea of using the time to remember the days leading up to and the Passion of the Christ is a good idea. Just make sure that you aren’t trying to make something happen in your life in an unnatural way. Change comes from the heart not an outward imposition of self-discipline. I have seen many people today on Facebook talking about Lent; what they are ‘sacrificing.’ Absolutely. Not. The. Point.
No practice of discipline is about the discipline itself. A spiritual discipline is just a work of the flesh. The purpose is everything. What are you hoping to accomplish through the practice? What level of sacrifice is going to allow you to focus on Christ and His work in your life? All fasting is to practice self-denial but with the purpose of reducing distraction and allowing focus. If the practice of self-denial as a discipline is important to you, it should be happening the rest of the year as well. My friend Jeff that I mentioned earlier told me that he very seldom fasted when seeking an answer in prayer because he didn’t practice fasting regularly and he didn’t want to ‘try’ to manipulate God. Our Lenten practices come with the same sound warning. If you’re giving up something dear to you because it is to dear to you, and you are led by the Spirit to do so. the next question on your lips should be: should I ever resume the activity? If it pulls me away from God, should I just leave it alone? Is chocolate deprivation going to bring you closer to God? Then give up chocolate permanently.
But most of us aren’t thinking that way. In fact, in light of Christ’s words on fasting (Matthew 6:16-18), if you make your fasting public in an unnecessary way, you have lost every reward involved except the honor of man, which isn’t what you were supposed to be seeking. I think many of us are just like I was, Lent seems cool and hip and super spiritual, so hey! Let’s do it! The truth is if you are led to celebrate Lenten this year, don’t worry about labels or who knows or anything, just let yourself be swept along into the amazing river of God’s love for you. Prepare yourself for the rest of the year and let the joy of resurrection guide your steps. When you think about your sacrifice, think about the sacrifice made for you. We all fall down, but the ashes remind us that we can all get back up and that beauty is right around the corner in the life of Jesus.