Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 7, 2011

Is Lent A Good Idea?

I was never exposed to the season of Lent when I grew up in the church. Back in the 80′s, Lent was considered a ‘bit too Catholic’ in evangelical and protestant circles. As a result, by the age of 17 the only thing I knew about Lent was that it was a time when some people gave up things like Pepsi or chocolate.

In the last decade, however, Lent has made a comeback in the evangelical church. One reasons for this is that the opposition between evangelicals and Catholics has eased off a bit. (See the work of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”). Secondly, there has been a renewed interest among evangelicals in liturgical forms of worship. (See Robert Webber’s, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why evangelicals are attracted to the liturgical church.).

Yet, despite this renewed interest in Lent, I think the verdict is still out on whether it is a good idea. In my own experience I can think of two recent examples of resistance towards observing Lent. A couple of years back a member of our church up north suggested that our Ash Wednesday service was placing us on a ‘slippery slope towards Catholicism.’ Similarly, my friend Dave Warkentin was recently criticized by a Mennonite Brethren ‘watchdog’ for discussing Lent on his blog.

I think there are some legitimate concerns that people have with Lent. There is always the danger that a 40 day focus on spiritual discipline will become legalistic. Part of the reason John Calvin reacted negatively towards Lent was because the Lenten disciplines were being imposed on people as a means to earning God’s favor. Lent can be dangerous if we forget the purpose of spiritual discipline. The disciplines of the Christian life are not ways of earning God’s favor. Instead the disciplines are meant to facilitate our relationship with God. They are a way of preparing ourselves so that we can receive the what God has in store for us (See John 15:1-11, Mark 4:3-9).

Others are concerned that if we focus on piety during Lent it will encourage us to become lax afterward. The concern is that discipleship should be a year-round focus not just a 40 day focus. As a result, there are calls among evangelicals to ‘lengthen Lent‘ and make spiritual discipline a full time focus.

Nevertheless, I think there remain good reasons to observe the season of Lent. First, there is profound wisdom in making Easter the center of this time of the year. As Dr. John Witvliet writes, “all of us need to sanctify our calendars and make clear that nothing in the winter and springtime of the year – not Valentines Day, not spring break, not March Madness, not even the hockey playoffs – is as important to our identity as Jesus’ death and resurrection.” Lent, then, can be a great time to re-prioritize Christ as the center of our lives.

Secondly, while I hear the evangelical concern to ‘lengthen lent,’ the reality is that the evangelical church is not committed to year-round discipleship. In a previous post I pointed out Dallas Willard’s observation that discipleship has become optional in the contemporary church. We have lost sight of Jesus call to, “go and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” Instead we make converts that are not required to grow in faith.

So perhaps we need to build in a regular time in the year to come back to the basics. Lent gives us a time to experience again the benefits of spiritual discipline. What better way to encourage people to return to the disciplines of the spiritual life by promoting a 40 day trial period. We have a better chance of keeping these life-giving disciplines going year-round if we experience the benefit of them during Lent.

So what are your thoughts on Lent? Is it a good idea?

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Responses

  1. Yep, Lent a very good idea. But then again I was raised primarily Catholic with weekly Confession and Communion, so I am strong on taking myself to task and looking at my role model Jesus. I felt even from the age of 5 years old the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit as taught to me. If you look at 40 days, it is the model in the Bible. If we are going to reproduce what Jesus was put through then 40 makes much Biblical sense. It doesn’t mean you suddenly stop working on yourself at 41 days. It means you have made a change in your life and how you live it, each year as you go through this contemplative process. Therefore you carry forth the change you have made in your position/relationship with God past the 40 days. If you don’t process the steps Jesus took and learn how to become a disciple then you really aren’t allowing the Holy Spirit to work in you on a daily basis. How can you call yourself an Evangelical if you are not first a disciple/student/talmede? You don’t have the maturity to “go forth” and save the lost, or ability to teach the saved to grow and obey. Currently attending an Interdenominational church with Presbyterian Pastor.

  2. Thanks Shannon,

    I appreciate your comment, “It doesn’t mean you suddenly stop working on yourself at 41 days. It means you have made a change in your life and how you live it, each year as you go through this contemplative process.” Well said!

  3. Avery good treatment of Lent and why so many of the clasical disciplines are showing up in Evangelical circles. After all we were all Catholics til 1517. It seems that we humans need a specific period of time for specific spiritual tasks or emphasis, at least I do. I welcome the Lenten season and we really do need to make Easter the main focus of our calendar.I also like someones idea that it need not be only giving up but of possibly adding a more rigourous discipline for 40 days. Besides after Fat Tuesday I need to purge out all those toxins.

  4. “Others are concerned that if we focus on piety during Lent it will encourage us to become lax afterward.”

    As seen around the world today (Mardi Gras) it also encourages hedonism in the binge and purge mindset we humans often find ourselves leaning towards.

  5. Hey Gil,

    So you have big party plans for Fat Tuesday eh? Don’t go too crazy on us 🙂
    Yes, I appreciate your point that Lent is not just giving things. The goal of Lent is not simply to deprive ourselves of something we like – the goal is to grow closer to Christ. So whatever facilitates our spiritual formation is a good thing. This may be fasting, or taking away something that has become idolatrous or time consuming, but it may also be setting aside more time for prayer and study of scripture.

  6. Hey Phil, I see you’ve ventured into the water of controversy too. Be careful! 🙂

    Seriously though, I’m learning to appreciate Lent not only in terms of spiritual discipline, although that’s part of it, but also as an intentional focus on the narrative of Jesus’ life. The road to Jerusalem is marked with struggle and pain, yet wrapped in a persistent hope we see in Jesus’ comfort to his disciples and then ultimately, in his resurrection. But if we simply live in Easter-Sunday-mode, we neglect other important aspects of our discipleship journey – “take up your cross” (Mk. 8:34) anyone?

  7. Thanks Dave,

    I appreciate your thoughts on the purpose of Lent. I was reading an article this week on how Lent was really a 4th century innovation. Once Christianity was made both legal and even preferable under Constantine in 313, the church was inundated with new converts and people interested in joining the church. To facilitate this pastoral challenge the church created a 40 day period to teach and prepare people for baptism to ensure they were serious about being disciples. So Lent was originally a time of focused discipleship. It was a season for people to unite themselves with Christ in his death and resurrection through Baptism. In light of this I agree that Lent is not just about giving things up or fasting – it is about taking the life of discipleship seriously.

  8. P.S. That article can be found online at
    http://www.thebanner.org/features/article/?id=3147

  9. We had a good sermon up here a little bit ago (visiting pastor, and unfortunately, I can’t remember his name) about thinking of Lent as a season to add rather than subtract.
    Because unless drinking Pepsi is somehow impeding your connection to God, giving it up seems more a test in endurance rather than a spiritual discipline.
    Instead we were challenged to add daily devotions or prayer time.
    I can see how giving something up may be useful to some people (especially if it is a time-related thing you are replacing with devotions), but I thought that was a very good distinction.

  10. Thanks Tonya,

    Yes, I think the point of Lent is to find ways to make discipleship a priority. Sometimes removing things – like tv / facebook – can create the space for that. But often it is more helpful to think about what we are neglecting in our spiritual life and how we can make it priority.

  11. I love your quote from Dr. John Witvliet: “all of us need to sanctify our calendars and make clear that nothing in the winter and springtime of the year – not Valentine’s Day, not spring break, not March Madness, not even the hockey playoffs – is as important to our identity as Jesus’ death and resurrection.” That was a great reminder to me to check where my focus is during the Lenten season. It’s so easy to get caught up in my own entertainment rather than remembering the demonstration of God’s great love on the cross and with the empty tomb. I want to remember that daily all year, but the time before our formal celebration of Easter each year is a wonderful opportunity to go deeper and be humbled by the sacrifice God made in Jesus so that I could be His child and live with Him forever.

  12. Hi Laura,

    Thanks for your comment! Hope things are well over on the coast.

  13. Dear Phil,

    Lent, for me, is mostly taking up something, not giving up something; as in Isaiah 58:6-7. There is in the non-catholic church little to “hang your faith on” as I call traditions. Lent is such a tradition for change. Enjoy your writting, Phil. Aways enlarges my world. Kay

  14. Hi Kay,

    Thanks for your comments!


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