What Christians Get Wrong About Lent

On Ash Wednesday, a look at what Lent is really about.

When I was a little kid, I remember asking my parents what "Lent" meant. I had seen the word placed on a sign outside of a local Catholic church just above the words "Fish Fry." The reply I received was that it was "a Catholic thing.” I didn't know much about Catholics back then, so I mostly shrugged it off.

As I grew older, I saw more people talking about Lent. Even those who weren't Catholic. Our own evangelical church even began to talk about fasting during Lent. 

What draws Christians from different backgrounds into Lent? As Lent starts today, it’s time to evaluate the deeper meaning of Lent. I personally think we embrace Lent because we intuitively realize these rhythms of spiritual life are part of giving our lives in worship—they have been in the Church for ages.

Many of us think of Lent as a period where we give something up for God in order to honor His sacrifice on the Cross for us, which we commemorate on Easter. While this is partially true, it's not exactly how the early Church saw Lent. It's more about anticipating the full impact of Easter for the time we're in now and when Christ returns.

It's not just our way of giving Jesus Christ a pat on the back, but it's first about re-centering our will to His and secondly living that out in the world.

When we talk about "giving something up for Lent," let's be honest: we usually mean "I'm going to throw God a bone.” But the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is meant to be a time where we take ourselves out of time and out of the business of our world to spend time dying to ourselves. It's not just our way of giving Jesus Christ a pat on the back, but it's first about re-centering our will to His and secondly living that out in the world.

The word "lent" comes from the old English word for spring and was meant to mirror the Jewish passover. Lent consists of 40 days. The 40 day period mirrors the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai and the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. The Church recognized the need for shadowing these times as they showed in Scripture in order to remember the divine narrative leading up to the Cross. By the time Palm Sunday comes around, we are celebrants of the coming King. And then on Easter, the love story of God is completed with an empty grave. It's a living memory, and in celebrating Lent, we're living through it ourselves in a way.

Every fast and feast in the Church for the past 2,000 odd years has been given to the whole body to remind us that Christ's actions effect us, even now. They are spiritual seasons, reminding us that our sins are forgiven, death is abolished and Christ is risen, even now. They're for our encouragement, so that when we stand in worship on Easter Sunday, we can confidently repeat the words of Gregory the Theologian, who said "Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him."

Our repentance leads to God filling us with more of Himself. Fast with the intention of receiving and not just giving.

It's also important to remember in times of fasting, such as Lent, that we're not just "giving something up," but we're "giving something over" and the less we take, the more we can give. Christians always saw this time as one for alms-giving, the practice of giving to the poor and needy. So, when we think of Lent, we think of service and pouring out into the streets so that the world can know the riches of the love of God. As we do all these things, the love of God becomes clearer in our hearts. As Father Fulton J. Sheen said:

We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative. A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.

None of this means fasting isn't important. Rather, it's exceedingly important when done with the right heart and attitude. As Fr. Sheen said, our repentance leads to God filling us with more of Himself. Fast with the intention of receiving and not just giving.

Lent is the spring of hope for all who believe that the tomb is empty and the oppression of sin and death is released. It is the spring of hope for those mourning and grieving. This time of fasting is both a releasing to God but also a proclamation of freedom through Christ. More than that, it's also sharing that hope to others through giving our own lives away, just as Christ did for us on the Cross.




Krempel commented…

Looks like Stan Patton is handling the "light work" here handily. I used to get involved in these discussions of Church History, Sola Scriptura, etc. But at a certain point I stopped. Don't always have the energy for it anymore.

Stan, good luck and have a blessed Holy Lent.



mtbartist commented…

My hope is that we all recognize and ponder deeply Christ's life, death and resurrection year-round. May we always be led by Him first and foremost in such a way that the things of this world grow dim…

"16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."

– Colossians 2

Joe Bonacci


Joe Bonacci commented…

Actually, when you repent, accept Christ, and become the " new man" Paul talks about aren't you living your whole life as Lent? You have certainly given upon some worldly things have you not. Lent is a mindset and lifestyle as a believer, not a once a year exercise.



Brett commented…

Wow Zachary, what an incredible piece - this is the first time [age 40] that i am doing anything for Lent and decided to do a 40 day observance with a different focus point or task every day and it's been great to have new people joining us every day - http://brettfish.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/40-days-of-lent-intro - just reflecting and doing and being and knowing - really loved the focus of your post and bringing it back to experiencing Easter through surrender mirroring what Jesus did for us.

Thank you
Brett Fish

Nathaniel Marshall


Nathaniel Marshall commented…

Man. The amount of teeth and claws being sunk into brothers & sisters here grieves me.

Zach, thanks for your thoughtful article. I've never celebrated the Lenten season before, but it seems to me to be similar to Advent. Lent prepares our hearts in expectation for Christ's Resurrection, Advent prepares our hearts in expectation for Christ's Birth.

While I understand what other commenters are saying about living a lifestyle of repentance, let's be honest: do the vast majority us *actually* do that? No. Are we *constantly* dwelling on His death and resurrection? No. Do we *consistently* looking to His return? No. The only harm I see in setting aside a designated time for that is the tendency of people to *only* engage in sanctification and hopeful expectation of His return during Lent and forsake it at all other times.

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