Yesterday (February 10th) was Ash Wednesday. Today, one pastor considers whether or not the practice of Lent (which Ash Wednesday begins) should be a priority for believers.
By Cade Campbell
Fasting really is a good, needed, genuine, beneficial, God honoring, and biblical spiritual discipline. So is the desire to prepare for the celebration of Easter each Spring. So is the desire to be connected to to an historic tradition that has been practiced by millions of believers throughout church history.
And yet I still believe it’s a bad idea to observe Lent.
Now, you might think that attitude is expected coming from a Baptist pastor, and maybe you’re right. My Roman Catholic friends would probably expect me to think the observance of Lent is a bad tradition. I’m just being a good Protestant after all.
Yet my views aren’t primarily motivated by a desire to be committed to a certain heritage, nor are they motivated by a desire to be either rebellious or cool. I don’t have a problem with Lent simply because I’m Protestant. Nor do I have a problem with Lent merely because I’m a curmudgeon. I have a problem with it because I believe there are some significant dangers that lie under the surface of its observation. We should be aware of these dangers particularly amid an evangelicalism where practicing Lent is back in vogue, especially among young, committed, well-meaning Protestants in lots of denominations. It’s actually the popular thing to do.
I’ve even observed Lent several times before. And early in my marriage I led my wife into observing Lent with me.
But the older I get the more I believe I shouldn’t have.
Why? What’s the big deal with Lent? What could I possibly have against fasting from something during the forty days leading up to Easter? If I believed what I said in the first paragraph then it’s obviously not because I don’t believe in fasting, or in Easter, or even in traditions. So why am I genuinely and intentionally protesting the practice of Lent in the most literal Protestant meaning of the word?
Well, I believe practicing Lent has four problems, four structural vulnerabilities that make it dangerous for discipleship:
1. First, it’s not mandated by Scripture. Fasting is assumed and prescribed. Weekly celebrating and marking Christ’s resurrection is required (hence Sunday worship), but Lent isn’t. True enough, the Bible’s silence on a particular practice is not necessarily an argument for it to not be observed. Just because Lent is not commanded does not necessarily imply that it must be rejected. And there does seem to be biblical warrant for extended fasts prior to significant religious observances and major life-decisions. Yet there isn’t a biblical practice with a direct correspondence to this practice, particularly as it is presently observed. Surely we can agree that there should be a serious amount of hesitation in placing a strong spiritual emphasis on a practice which was never observed by either Jesus nor by any of his apostles.
What I’m saying here is not merely that Lent shouldn’t be observed because it doesn’t have to be observed. I am merely making the point that if we are to take Scripture seriously as the foundation for our faith, then surely there should be biblical warrant for how we practice discipleship, how we practice our faith – personally and corporately. Yes fasting is biblical. Yes celebrating the resurrection is biblical.
A formal period of fasting from one particular activity in the six weeks leading up to Easter isn’t.
2. Second, I don’t know how to reconcile observing Lent with Jesus’ instructions not to practice righteousness before men. He forbids his disciples to practice overly outward displays of piety that make people think we’re super spiritual. He tells us to pray in secret, and he says that when we do fast we should take intentional steps to not let anyone know about it (Matthew 6:1-18).
And the truth is, nothing seems to be more public than a publicly observed and prescribed fast. Additionally, it seems from my experience that the only thing more popular than observing the tradition of Lent is an obsession in our social-media world to let everyone we know, know exactly what is being given up. Seriously, I’ve never known anyone who observes Lent who hasn’t told me that they’re observing Lent. There’s a whole cottage-industry of blogging about how much people love it. It’s the CrossFit of Christianity.
I know that we live in a world that loves to be overly transparent and share just about everything. But from a biblical perspective, personal spiritual disciplines are shy. They blush if they’re broadcasted.
Granted, there are corporate spiritual disciplines in Scripture – practices that are observed by a nation or a local church. Some might argue that Lent is one such corporate discipline. And yet everything else about its practice is geared toward the personal nature of its observation. It is almost always (particularly in Protestant evangelicalism) deeply individualistic, and if it’s individualistic then it’s personal, and if it’s personal then it needs to be between the believer and God – that is especially true of fasting, and it’s hard to be secret and closeted about fasting if the only way we can do it, seems to be by first telling everyone how serious we are about doing it. That’s a problem. Fasting is about Jesus; it’s not about training for an iron-man competition.
3. Third, biblical fasting is defined and described as the giving up of something we genuinely need for the purpose of focusing our attention and affections on him whom we need more than anything else. Fasting is an intentional break from what we need physically as a means of relying on, loving, adoring, cherishing, and craving him who we need eternally. There’s a reason Jesus fasted from bread and water for forty days in the wilderness: The human body really needs food and water! But Jesus knew he needed fellowship with and obedience to the Father more.
Yet what I see far too often is a first-world habit of giving up nothing more than upper-middle class luxury items, not necessities. It’s hard for me to take an American Christian seriously who says they want to focus on Jesus’ trials of crucifixion in a world filled with poverty, starvation, warfare, and genocide by “fasting” from Twitter, Facebook, chocolate, soft drinks, or their favorite TV reality show. As much as we may want to convince ourselves otherwise, social media and video games are not synonymous with food and water.
We’re a long way from practicing spiritual disciplines like Jesus when we equate fasting with taking a detox from things we put way too much time, emphasis, and energy into in the first place. Only temporarily giving up something that may be a hindrance to our growth in godliness anyway is not an evidence of spiritual vitality. And there is no reward if after we’ve fasted we can still sing in the icy-melodies of Elsa that the fast “never bothered us anyway.”
4. Fourth, placing an overemphasis on Lent during the period leading up to Easter may have the unintended consequence of lessening an emphasis on Easter during the other 325 days out of the year. I love Easter. I love Good Friday services. I like sunrise services (mostly…after several cups of coffee). But the life of the believer is to be the life of the gospel year-round, daily taking up a cross, especially by daily being entranced by His cross.
The forty days leading up to Easter are not a time-period that is holier than the June. All of life is to be lived in the shadows cast by a bloody cross and a stone sitting outside an empty tomb. That’s true of February and it’s true of all the other days of the year when I’m tempted to forget.
So what’s a believer to do? How are we to let Lent go and still observe the heart of what the tradition is meant to celebrate? Well, I gave four objections to Lent, so here are four short suggestions for putting some gospel-saturated spiritual disciplines into practice:
1. Leading up to Easter read gospel-saturated, God-glorifying books – books like Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney, A Hunger For God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die by John Piper, The Final Days of Jesus by Andras Kostenberger and Justin Taylor, The Cross of Christ, by John Stott, or The Mortification of Sin by John Owen.
2. Use the weeks leading up to Easter as an opportunity for forty days of focused servant-evangelism to your neighbors in your town or community. Use the time leading up to Easter as an annual observation of the servant-hearted heart of Jesus for those in your life. Display that to the families in your communities, neighborhoods, or apartment complexes.
3. Begin to take steps toward a biblical practice of fasting. Several of the books I listed above are a great place to start. Start simple. Start with actual things that are needed as things to fast from. Maybe begin fasting for short periods of time or over weekends. Start at different times throughout the year (maybe forty days spread out over eight workweeks throughout the year). And start by not telling anyone (other than those who just absolutely have to know, like close family, spouses, roommates, etc.) what you’re doing.
4. Use your time(s) of fasting as an ongoing meditations on the gospel. The good news of gospel disciplines is not that our actions make us more lovable or more more saved or more worthy of salvation…or more worthy of celebrating the gospel. The spiritual disciplines are not meant for us to marvel at our piety, our own strength and ability to not let go of Jesus. Instead, they’re means of sanctification by which we’re reminded that Jesus never lets go of us.
And that really is good news – huge, epic, feasting, banquet-spread, super-sized, gospel good news.
Cade Campbell is Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship for First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. He is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.