Fasting is a good, needed, genuine, and biblical spiritual discipline. So is the desire to prepare for the celebration of Easter each Spring. So is the desire to be connected to and committed to an historic tradition that has been practiced by millions of believers throughout church history.
And yet I still think it’s a bad idea to observe Lent.
Now, you may think that attitude is expected coming from a Baptist pastor who is very Protestant, and my Roman Catholic friends would probably expect me to think that the church’s tradition of Lent is a bad tradition. Yet my views aren’t primarily motivated by a desire to be committed to a certain heritage, nor is it motivated by a desire to be cool. I don’t have a problem with Lent simply because I’m Protestant. In fact, practicing Lent is back in vogue, especially among young, committed, well-meaning Protestants in lots of denominations. It’s actually the popular thing to do.
I’ve even observed it several times before. But the older I get the more I believe I shouldn’t have.
Why? What’s the big deal with Lent? What could I possibly have against fasting from something during the forty days leading up to Easter? If I believed what I said in the first paragraph then it’s obviously not because I don’t believe in fasting, or in Easter, or even in traditions. So why am I genuinely and intentionally protesting the practice of Lent in the most literal Protestant meaning of the word?
Well, I believe practicing Lent has three problems:
1. First, I don’t know how to reconcile observing Lent with Jesus’ instructions not to practice righteousness before men. He instructs his disciples against overly outward displays of piety that make people think we’re super spiritual. He tells us to pray in secret and when we fast not to let anyone know about it (Matthew 6:1-18).
And the truth is, the only thing more popular than observing the tradition of Lent, is letting everyone you know, know exactly what you’ve given up for Lent. Seriously, I’ve never known anyone who observes Lent who hasn’t told me that they’re observing Lent. There’s a whole cottage-industry of blogging about how much we love to observe Lent.
But as much as we like to broadcast it, it’s hard to be secret and closeted about fasting if the only way we can do it, is by first telling everyone how serious we are about it. Fasting is about Jesus; it’s not about training for an iron-man competition, so you really don’t have to keep us posted like you would when serious runners update us on Facebook about how many miles they’ve pushed through.
2. Second, genuine fasting is always the giving up of something we genuinely need for the purpose of focusing our attention and affections on God. I mean, there’s a reason Jesus fasted from bread and water for forty days in the wilderness: The human body really needs food and water!
And yet what I see far too often is the first-world habit of giving up nothing more than upper-middle class luxury items. It’s hard for me to get past an American Christian who says they want to focus on the crucifixion in a world of poverty, starvation, warfare, and genocide by giving up Twitter, Facebook, chocolate, or soft drinks. It’s hard to watch the destitution and poverty in other parts of the world and then hear an American believer tell me that they’re giving up social media and video games.
We’re a long way from Saint Francis indeed (and even more so from Jesus) when we believe fasting is nothing more than temporarily taking a detox from things we probably put way too much time and energy into in the first place. It’s not an evidence of spiritual vitality, if after we’ve fasted we can say that it “never bothered us anyway.”
3. Third, placing an overemphasis on Lent during the period leading up to Easter can sometimes have the unintended consequence of making us less focused on Easter during the other 325 days out of the year. I love Easter. I love Good Friday services. I like sunrise services (mostly, after several cups of coffee). And yet, as a Christian I believe the life of the gospel requires daily taking up my cross, especially by daily being entranced by His cross.
The forty days leading up to Easter are not a time-period that is holier than the month of June. All of life is to be lived in the shadows cast by a bloody cross and a stone sitting outside an empty tomb. That’s true of March and it’s true of all the other days of the year when I’m tempted to forget.
So what’s a believer to do? How are we to let Lent go and still observe the heart of what the tradition is meant to celebrate? Well, I gave three objections to Lent, so here are four short suggestions for gospel-saturated spiritual disciplines:
1. Leading up to Easter read a few books like Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney, A Hunger For God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die by John Piper, or The Final Days of Jesus by Andras Kostenberger and Justin Taylor.
2. Use the forty days leading up to Easter as an opportunity for forty days of service to neighbors in your town or community. Use the time leading up to Easter as an annual observation of the servant-hearted heart of Jesus for those in your life.
3. Begin to take steps toward a biblical practice of fasting. Several of the books I listed above are a great place to start. Start simple. Start with actual things that are needed as things to fast from. Start at different times throughout the year (maybe forty days spread out over eight workweeks throughout the year). And start by not telling anyone what you’re doing. It’s not about you and them. It’s about you and Jesus.
4. Use your time(s) of fasting as an ongoing meditation on the gospel. The good news of gospel disciplines is not that our actions make us more lovable or more saved or more worthy of salvation. Spiritual disciplines are not meant for us to be able to marvel at our own strength and ability to not let go of Jesus. They’re instruments of sanctification by which we’re reminded that Jesus never lets go of us.
And that really is good news – huge, epic, feasting, super-sized good news.