Tomorrow marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which has been an important part of the church calendar for centuries. While it’s been more welcome in church traditions of a Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran bent, it has been incorporated increasingly by other Protestant traditions. This period of 40 days (not including Sundays) has historically been a season of repentance and reflection in preparation for Easter. Just as Advent is an aid in preparing our hearts to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas, the Lenten season is an aid in preparing our hearts to remember the Cross and celebrate the Resurrection at Easter.
Self-denial has always been a hallmark of this season. Early on, this involved a fast which only allowed for one meal a day, with no animal products. This relaxed over time, but many still incorporate some type of fast into their Lenten observance, choosing something to abstain from. The purpose of this self-denial isn’t for misery’s sake. It’s for the sake of clearing space for prayer and making our hearts more in tune to the suffering of Christ.
While observing Lent is certainly not a requirement, and we must be careful to guard against legalism, it can be an extremely helpful tool as we take a dedicated season of the year to reflect on the sufferings of Christ on our behalf. It does not “earn points” with God, this would fly in the face of grace, but it can be an exercise of removing distractions and purposefully repenting of our sin. If you plan to observe Lent, here are two things to consider to mark the season:
1. Is there a habit or behavior you should give up? Before you choose one of the Protestant go-tos—sweets and soda—remember that the purpose of this sacrifice and self-denial is for repentance and remembrance. Is there something that is reflective of sin in your life, that has an improper level of control over your life or love in your heart? Is there something that will clearly push your mind to remember the sufferings of Christ? These are the sorts of things to “give up.”
2. Is there a particular spiritual discipline or devotional activity you should commit to? Try making this a season of prayer. You could incorporate a fixed hour prayer practice, pray through the Psalms, or commit to praying for a particular person or issue. You could take the time to read through the Gospels during Lent. You could commit your time to a particular ministry or local service opportunity. While certainly these sorts of practices should be a part of our lives all year long, Lent can be a season for concentrated attention and renewed vigor in these sorts of spiritual disciplines.
I have found that these two points—give up, take on—are interconnected. For example, you could “fast” from eating out and dedicate the money you would have spent to someone in need. You could fast one meal a day and instead dedicate that time to prayer. You could give up social media or television and instead dedicate that time to be with physical people, building relationships with your neighbors or volunteering at a local ministry. I think you see the point. Our self-denial is not to make us “super Christians” or in any way make us earn God’s favor. It reminds us of the subtle idols of our hearts and sends us running to God in repentance and dependence. That is the whole purpose of Lent—to drive home to our hearts our desperate need for the Savior.
Throughout this season, I’ll be sharing some of my Lenten reflections here. I would love to hear about your experience with Lent. What practices have you found to be formative and meaningful?