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lent_imageLent 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.

Conclusion

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.


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Comments:


26 thoughts on “Evangelicals Embracing (and Rejecting) Lent”

  1. Gary Ware says:

    Just what is “the rich Protestant history of the practice”?
    That comment comes out of no where in the post.
    Taking something that root and branch is about emulating the sufferings of Christ in order to expiate your own sins and plastering evangelical motifs over it is a bit short of a rich history.

    1. Clayton says:

      I believe Lutherans and Anglicans have always observed Lent. Maybe some of the more historically rooted reformed churches too.

  2. Clayton says:

    You are right, a self righteous attitude completely defeats the purpose of Lent.

    Its interesting you mention the state Church in Romania. The Eastern Orthodox Churches observe a pre-Lenten period during the three weeks prior to the start of Lent. The first Sunday is called the Sunday of The Publican and The Pharisee in which hymns and prayers of the liturgical services are centered around that Gospel passage. Apparently Orthodox Christians recognized somewhere along the way the need to fight against temptation to fall into pride regarding fasting.

    Also, the following prayer is repeated often during Orthodox Lenten services as an aid in combating the temptation of pride and self-righteousness:

    O Lord and Master of my life!

    Take from me the spirit of sloth,
    meddling, lust of power, and idle talk.

    But give rather the spirit of chastity,
    humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

    Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
    and not to judge my brother,
    for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

  3. Danny says:

    well said Trevin, evenly balanced…
    in my neck of the woods, spiritual climate, and personal history…I’ll pass on the Lenten fast, and will be up for fasting in, let’s say, mid june.
    Way too many I know are / would be climbing the religious ladder. But then again, that’s my take and I could be wrong.

  4. Eric says:

    Romans 14:5-10

  5. Ben says:

    Trevin, I’m a Catholic who regularly reads your blog because I find you thoughtful and your perspective worthwhile. But I have to say that statements such as, “the bondage of perpetual penitence and rituals common to Catholicism” and descriptions of high church as “life-draining” are really short-sighted, inaccurate and offensive. Surely we can disagree without trotting out that sort of slander

    1. Clayton says:

      I wondered what “perpetual penitence” is supposed to mean. All churches rooted in historical Christian tradition (so-called high churches)observe feastal/celebratory periods as well as fasting/penitential periods.

      And, the Church has had designated fasting periods ever since apostolic times (read The Didache) – it’s not like the Pope came up with that idea and imposed it from the top down. Apparently Jesus and the apostles didn’t consider designated times for fasting and prayer to be life draining.

    2. Trevin Wax says:

      Ben,

      Thank you for reading my blog. I believe the context of my comments on Lent and Catholicism make clear that I am referring to the excessiveness of Lenten practice especially seen in its obligatory nature. There are Catholic writers who would agree that Reformation was needed, even if they do not agree with the theology of the Reformers.

      High church is not “life-draining” in and of itself, as many across the three main branches of Christianity would attest. But surely we must not discount the experience of converts from Catholicism or Orthodoxy to evangelical faith (I’m speaking primarily here of my friends in Romania), where the association of Lent is to a life-draining, culturally-Christian faith without its power.

      To be fair, such accusations can also be leveled against low-church adherents. Many find the continual need for spontaneity or innovation in some evangelical circles to be life-draining as well, and cultural-Christianity is not merely a Catholic or Orthodox thing, as anyone who has spent significant time in the “evangelical” Bible Belt will tell you.

      1. Ben says:

        “I believe the context of my comments on Lent and Catholicism make clear that I am referring to the excessiveness of Lenten practice especially seen in its obligatory nature.”

        I’m not sure that really makes much of a difference. Even with that clarification you seem to be saying that because Lent is obligatory for Catholics it somehow amounts to bondage. I don’t expect you to agree with the Catholic teaching of Lent as being obligatory, but describing it in those terms is at best un-ecumenical and at worst an unjustified attack on Catholics. I can assure you that I am happily fulfilling my Lenten obligations and am no way in bondage or a state of perpetual penance as a result of doing so.

        As for the other comments I referenced, I appreciate your clarification and have no issue with what you’re saying in light of the qualifications made in your comment.

      2. Josh Cushing says:

        “Many find the continual need for spontaneity or innovation in some evangelical circles to be life-draining as well.”

        I wonder if this has anything to do with the recent emphasis on Lent in Protestantism. I know that for me, being well aquainted with churches who stress innovation, I have been very refreshed by the more traditional and liturgical nature of our PCA church.

  6. JohnM says:

    Christmas and Easter observances are celebrations of events recorded in scripture. I don’t have to celebrate Christmas or Easter, but I have good reason to celebrate. Even if celebration isn’t mandated in scripture and even if we know the dates we celebrate aren’t spot on we do know what we celebrate has a connection to reality. Lent does not have that same connection as far as I can see. That’s the difference to me.

    1. Wesley Woods says:

      Christ fasted for forty days before being tempted by the devil. we are called to follow the Master. since our Master did spiritual disciplines although being fully God and fully man, how much our should we do spiritual disciplines to be conformed into the image of Christ our Master.

  7. KC says:

    There is a God-ordained fast during this season, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, but I’m guessing it won’t show up on anyone’s radar to debate.

    Deriving “spiritual benefit in setting aside a time of the year for reflection on Christ’s passion” is fine, it seems, provided whatever you do you don’t include an actual biblical holiday in the process…make stuff up, borrow from the Catholics, hijack a pagan holiday, but just be sure to exclude the one Jesus and the Apostles celebrated.

    Kinda funny…mostly sad.

  8. L.A. says:

    I found your writing very refreshing and challenging…thank you.

  9. Brandon says:

    Thought provoking post; thanks Mr. Wax.

    What I’ve been finding interesting as of late,is what some (professing) Roman Catholics are saying they’re giving up for lent.

    I heard one guy say he was giving up “cursing.” My boss told me he was giving up “sinning” for lent!– a high (but unattainable) aspiration!

    I bring all this up, not to carricature Roman Catholics, but to just simply make the point that Christians can use Lent (whether they observe it or not) as a springboard to talk to the many people who unwittingly observe it, about the true nature of sin, self-denial, and our need for Christ and His perfect life and sacrifice on the cross.

    I pray your post helps to spring such conversation.

  10. Simon says:

    Lent was simply a way of life for Christians up to the Reformation. Was it obligatory? Well yes if you think that living a life in common with others means that you do certain things like Lent. Probably in the Latin West, Lent became legalistic as most Western theology, including Protestantism, is legalistic and is framed in legal language. So in some ways the Protestant reaction against practises like Lent are understandable. What is not Christian is the individualism that the Reformation introduced. Christianity is a common life, participating in the life of the Trinity and with each other. Lent is a done as a community and is not optional. Is it coercion or depriving of liberty? Perhaps if you look at it through western and secular eyes. But this begs the question: Why would you not want to participate in an activity that all other members of your community are doing? I think the answer for Protestants is that the 5 solas of the Reformation could be translated today as “Me, Me, Me, Me and Me!”

  11. Michael Palmer says:

    I can hardly believe what I am reading. Why in the world do we want to add something to what we already have in a grace relationship with our Lord Jesus. “Oh foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you”. We do not need to add special days and seasons etc. to what we already have in Christ. Trevin’s Romanian friends have it right! I tell people that when I “got saved” I was delivered from all that stuff. Praise God.

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​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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