My friends showed up to volleyball practice with crosses of ash smeared on their foreheads. I looked on with incredulity at the morbid (to me) signs on their forehead as they lamented that it was the beginning of Lent when they couldn’t eat chocolate or candy. The entire purpose of this season to them was a time of loss. I couldn’t understand it. Coming from a Baptist tradition where we didn’t practice Lent, their religious practice leading to Easter didn’t make sense to me and I staunchly declared to myself, if not to them, “I don’t believe in Lent.”
Is not Easter a holiday to celebrate? Does not the cross do away with all acts that seem to earn salvation? Are we to become enslaved once again to the Law, required to participate in rituals to prove our Christian faith? Are we not instead free from all such works?
I patted myself on the back for my arguments and moved on without further reflection. I was not a legalist. I was not trying to prove I was devout. I was not a hypocrite, fasting and hating it.
No. I was merely judgmental, short sighted, and shallow in my understanding of the ancient practices of fasting, Lent, and repentance. Whether these girls were committed to seeking God or not (and am I the one to judge?), the practice of turning to Him during this season is to be treasured.
I did not see the beauty of a contrite heart, the love God has for the humble, or the fruit that comes from a discipline which puts off our selfish motives in order to cling wholly to God. God said, “when you seek me you will find me if you seek me with your whole heart.” Intentionally stopping a behavior for the purpose of focusing that energy on God is definitely a step towards seeking Him with our whole hearts.
I have since fasted over Lent many years. I have given up shopping, sweets, Facebook, and caffeine – some of these more than once. Each time I have fasted I have learned about myself and my tendencies to turn to something other than God to meet my deep need for Him. How I will choose a sugar rush to abate my hurting heart. How I will try to receive “love” through “likes” of my clever posts. How I will try retail therapy in order to convince myself that I am ok.
In the place of these things God has met me in companionship, grace, comfort, abiding love. I have learned that He loved me enough to die for me, despite my turning from Him. That while He appreciates my small sacrifices, He is not sorely disappointed when I slip up and have a bite of sugar. That fasting opens a place in my life for God where I had once excluded Him. And that He is lavish in His forgiveness, mercy, love.
But, I still don’t “believe in” Lent. We should not participate if we feel that we are saved if we do or damned if we don’t. Participating in Lent will not prove anything to God, earn us brownie points, give us salvation, or make us more holy. We cannot atone for our sins, make it up to God, or earn His favor. Jesus covered all of this on the cross. Jesus continues to make us righteous. We cannot do it through any act of will power, self-deprivation, or good deeds. To believe it does is to deny the power of the cross. The power that raised Christ from the dead. The power that cleanses us and makes us new.
More than that, it is possible to participate in Lent and not worship God. One of the most shocking passages of the Old Testament to me is Amos 5:21-22:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.”
Why? Because their hearts were far from God. Their actions towards others betrayed their selfish motives, their lack of compassion for the needy, their worship that made themselves feel good, but did not glorify God. It is possible that we can fast from food, caffeine, television, social media, and remain unchanged, untouched by God.
I still don’t believe in Lent. I believe in the power of the cross. I believe that because of Christ’s work I am made new, am whole, am perfected.
Honestly, Lent snuck up on me this year. Wednesday I panicked because I hadn’t picked anything to fast from and felt guilty as I dipped a chocolaty tim-tam in my coffee. But as I wrote this, I felt God prompting me to do something different this year.
I suspect the next 40 days will not be a time to fast, but instead a time to embrace. A time to step out in courage as I face change and some loss over the summer (more on this soon). I want to spend this season in celebration, gratitude, and love. I want to fellowship with my friends, worship with my church, and hope for the future.
What will this season be for you? These 40 days before Easter? A time to fast? To turn from something to turn towards God? Or perhaps it’s a time to celebrate, to be grateful, to rejoice. Maybe it’s a time to rest, or to practice silence. Or, maybe, it’s a time to step out in faith that He is doing something new. There are many different spiritual practices that create room in our lives for God. Fasting is merely one of them. And Lent is an appropriate time for any or all.