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Why Lent?

Today is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of the Lenten season and the time when small wars break out around the Protestant household over whether or not the season should be a part of the Christian calendar.

Many argue (quite plausibly it seems to me) that we should learn from the calendar God established for His people under the Old Covenant, which had only one day of fasting set apart each year (and it was surrounded by numerous days of feasting). If, they say, this was the case prior to the coming of our Savior (and the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth, the days of “continual feasting”) why would we institute a season of 40 days of “fasting”? And, I think I agree — assuming that Lent is celebrated as a 40 day fast. But the question is, “Is this how Lent should be celebrated?” I don’t think so.

I know that traditionally, Christians have “given up” something for Lent and usually that “something” has been something they particularly enjoy. This may be seen as a form of “fasting” I guess, but if it is, it’s a very pale shadow of what “fast” (doing without food of any kind) really means. I understand the rationale for the practice, but given it’s very limited focus, it seems to me to miss the point of fasting in general and is easily metamorphosed into something like a “Pharisaical” act (i.e. “God surely must be pleased with me since He sees me foregoing my usual afternoon grande chocolate-caramel-cinnamon mocha latte with extra foam, which I’m absolutely dying to have right now!”).

This is — probably unintentionally, but it is all the same — a distortion of the whole purpose of fasting. We fast to remind ourselves of the seriousness of our sins. Our sins are a high-handed insult to the gracious, loving God who made us. They are so grievous that we deserve no good thing from God — indeed, we deserve to starve to death. Fasting should have the same effect upon our attitude toward sin that spanking is designed to produce in our children — i.e. it should impress upon us that sin is bad, painful, worthy of death, and that I ought to hate it and stay away from it. I’m not sure that giving up Godiva chocolate for forty days always has the same effect.

So, unless the congregation is going to engage in a corporate fast for a particular reason or you decide to set a day aside for a real fast (which means no food for 24 hours or at least until sundown), I’m not sure that these lite fasts mean a great deal — and we probably are better off without them. But that’s a different matter than saying that Lent is evil or unprofitable. (more…)

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Fasting for the world

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

Depriving oneself unnecessarily is not commonly something that modern Americans view favorably. Why would you do it if you don’t have to? This is especially the case when we think of food. Why fast unless your doctor requires it? It’s clear, however, that our Savior viewed fasting as something His people would do until His return. He not only warned the disciples against hypocritical fasting but instructed them in the proper way to fast (Matt. 6:16-18). And we should note that this instruction comes in the context of teaching about the proper ways to give and pray. Fasting is as much an obligation for the people of God as giving or praying. Jesus assumes that it is going to be a regular part of our lives.

This is reiterated in Matthew 9 where Jesus defends His disciples against the charge of indifference to fasting by saying that there are times when fasting is inappropriate (Matt. 9:14-15). But He goes on to say that the time is coming when the disciples will have occasion to fast and in those seasons, they will do so.

This reality lies behind the season of Lent. I grew up around Roman Catholic friends who had a superstitious understanding of this season and trivialized it to such a degree that I always thought it silly at best and destructive and dangerous at worst. Lent seemed to distract you from the finished work of Christ and focus you upon a dependence on your own works. But historically, the Church was motivated to observe this season by the opposite reason. The concern was that there should be a time, at least once per year, when God’s people are called to a formal, corporate remembrance of their sins and their continual need to humble themselves before the Lord in repentance. All have sinned and thus, all deserve to die.

The season of Lent calls us to remember this sobering reality. Far from focusing upon self-atonement, it reminds us that there is no hope in us at all. Our confidence is not in our works but in the work of Jesus in our behalf. His death in our place and His resurrection; His righteousness is our only hope and the foundation of our acceptance in the sight of God. Lent focuses upon how this glorious reality ought to affect us and what it ought to produce in us. Rather than provoking pride and self-righteousness, this reality brings us down in humble acknowledgment of our disobedience and unbelief and produces in us thankful acknowledgment for all His mercies to us in Christ Jesus. And that is where fasting comes in.
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