Lent seems to be increasingly popular among young evangelicals nowadays. This isn’t the first year I’ve seen attention given to Lent, but it is the first time that I’ve noticed multiple blogs and tweets pushing back against the practice of fasting in the weeks before Easter.
Some younger evangelicals appreciate Lent as an opportunity to implement a spiritual discipline that has a long history within the various wings of Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestants observe this time of reflection).
Other evangelicals believe Lent has the potential of leading us back into the bondage of perpetual penitence and rituals common to Catholicism, to which the Reformers rightly reacted.
Some say it’s a historical practice with spiritual benefits. Others say evangelicals have historically rejected it because of its potential excesses.
Looking at History
The truth is, history is on both sides and on neither side.
Yes, plenty of Christians through the years have engaged in some sort of Lenten fast, but the idea that we are “connecting with our roots” by practicing Lent voluntarily is only half the story. For many of our forefathers, Lent wasn’t optional; it was enforced. If you tell me I have to observe Lent by only eating certain foods, I’m going with Zwingli to eat a nice round of sausages on Friday, thank you much.
And yes, plenty of Christians through the years have rejected any kind of Lenten fast as “Romish popery,” but the idea that we’re standing in the shoes of our Protestant forefathers in rejecting Lent is only half the story. Plenty of Puritans banned Christmas, Easter, and any special Sunday, but I don’t see many people today taking a saw to the church’s Christmas tree.
In the past decade, I’ve engaged in “fasting” during Lent a few times. Right now, my focus is more on Eastertide – a season of Easter celebration that extends through the weeks after Resurrection Sunday.
I see Lent as an exercise that can be helpful or harmful – like many spiritual disciplines. So here are a few suggestions for those who practice and those who refrain.
If You Do Lent…
First, I would caution my friends who engage in Lenten practices to not give off the impression that their brothers and sisters who refrain are “missing out.” If a season of Lent were that important to spiritual growth, the apostles would have recommended it. It is not unreasonable to remember the track record of how Christians have sometimes allowed these seasons to get out of hand by making them into a new law – as Paul himself made clear (Colossians 2:16, where the apostle’s conversation isn’t about Lent, although the principle still applies).
Secondly, in an attempt to “reconnect with our roots,” there’s the possibility of offending a weaker brother who found their former Catholicism or Anglicanism or whatever high-church tradition they were a part of to be life-draining, rather than life-giving. My Baptist friends in Romania are not going to fast around Easter or Christmas precisely because it is associated with a cultural, lifeless Christianity they see in the state church. More power to them. No one should stumble over a fast.
If You Don’t Do Lent…
For my friends who have an aversion to anything like Lent, don’t impugn the motives of those who have found spiritual benefit in setting aside a time of the year for reflection on Christ’s passion. To imply that Lent is a “Catholic thing” misses the rich Protestant history of the practice, and rejecting it for this reason ironically puts Rome front and center, with all of us just positioning ourselves in reference to the Roman Catholic Church. To forbid the practice can be just as detrimental as demanding it.
I hardly think the church is suffering from too much fasting. But I do think the church is suffering from too much self-righteousness (and I include myself in this indictment). Lent – being either for or against – can become a way of climbing up on to the pedestal.
What is more important than the practices we take on is the heart attitude behind them. If there’s anything we should give up this time of year, it’s our sense of superiority either to those outside the church or those inside the church who do things differently than we do.
The cross levels us all. And that’s true whether or not you practice Lent.