Last week some denominations in the Christian world recognized the beginning of “Lent” season on Ash Wednesday following a “Fat Tuesday” of pigging out on Paczkis (Polish pastries). You may ask, “Where is ‘Lent’ in the Bible? Good question. The answer is nowhere. It became a tradition much later to commemorate Jesus’ 40 days of prayer & fasting in the wilderness—a period of special spiritual focus. The purpose became to spend about 40 days in prayer & penitence in preparation for Easter. Typically every Friday during Lent is a day of abstinence to go without something like meat or candy as an act of self-denial.
We don’t recognize Lent in our church because of our emphasis on following the Scriptures & the precedents of the early Christians there. Since they didn’t have Lent or Ash Wednesday, neither do we. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong with observing it, it carries cautions. One of the problems is that many observe it as a legalistic ritual, going through the motions because that’s what their church says they should do. While it can be beneficial to have intensified times of focusing on spiritual devotion, religious rituals without heart commitment have no value.
Another problem is that it tends to draw attention to self-denial, especially on Ash Wednesday when people are marked with ash on their foreheads. This seems to be in direct contrast to how Jesus told us to practice such acts of self-denial privately. He told us to do any acts such as fasting discreetly instead of announcing it like the hypocrites do (Matthew 6:16-18). In fact, He specifically said to “wash your face” which is the opposite of smearing ashes on it. This is especially true in this age of social media virtue signaling & humble-bragging when people may post with the motive: “Look at me! Look how much I’m being spiritual & sacrificial!”
While the practice of fasting & repenting in sackcloth & ashes can be found in the Old Testament, no mention is made in the New Testament of Christians using sackcloth & ashes. If a season of Lent were important to spiritual growth, the Apostles would have said so. I’ve seen over the years many Christian leaders promote the benefits of fasting, but If fasting were such an important spiritual discipline, wouldn’t we see it commanded? Instead, commanding abstinence from certain foods is wrong (1 Timothy 4:3). Food (or denying yourself of it) doesn’t bring you closer to God (1 Corinthians 8:8, Romans 14:5-6).
One could point out that Jesus fasted. True. But when Jesus referenced fasting, people were still under the Old Covenant. But after the New Covenant was established after His death & resurrection, the only time fasting is mentioned is in the book of Acts when church leaders were commissioning or sending people off on a mission with prayer & the laying on of hands. This is something the Elders practice at our church whenever we set aside someone as an Elder, Deacon, or Minister. I’ve also practiced fasting on rare occasions for intensified prayer. But otherwise, I have to confess that fasting doesn’t really focus me on God but on food!
If someone wants to observe Lent, they have freedom to do so. It can be helpful, but be aware that it can be harmful too. But self-denial would be better kept as private practice, not compelled as a church-wide tradition bound upon the consciences of Christians. No ritual can make a person right with God. We don’t earn or deserve His blessing. God operates by grace, not by merit. Repenting isn’t something we save up for a special season; it’s what we should be doing all the time. Giving up vices like smoking, swearing, or complaining should be done permanently, not temporarily abandoned. Praying, Bible reading, concern for holiness, & acts of charity are to be perpetual practices. Self-denial isn’t about the calendar, but about a lifestyle.