There are lots of reasons why some Christians object to Lent and its observance. Over the past few weeks I have written about what I regard to be the most substantial reason why a Christian might faithfully choose not to keep a holy Lent. If we are not careful, Lent can easily become an exercise in self-justification and self-righteousness, a display of the heroic efforts that we make thinking that it will impress God and curry some favor or wrest some special blessing. The Apostle Paul described this as the way of the “boast” (Romans 3:27), and warned his readers in Rome that it simply cannot establish the kind of righteousness that God requires of us as human beings (Romans 10:3). The problem with Lent if we are not careful is that it can nurture the illusion that we can in fact make ourselves righteous, or worse, that we have to somehow make ourselves righteous.
A Christian writer who has chosen not to observe Lent as a matter of conviction and conscience explained that she has made this decision because she knows that her heart would whisper throughout its 40 days – “Look at what you’re doing… look at what you’ve given up… congratulations, you’ve inched your way just a little bit closer to the holy!” She wrote, “I would absolutely cave to pride and talk about it. To me, it’s simply flirting with the inevitable. It’s like telling my 6 year old not to touch the play dough on the counter that’s been left open and out. Ha!” (“A Vent about Lent” – http://theaquilareport.com).
I appreciate what she’s saying here, in fact, I know firsthand just how seductive the spiritual disciplines can be, how they can leave you feeling so spiritually superior and smug. I think that this is why Jesus was so insistent in the Sermon on the Mount about how we must be so careful as His disciples not to pray, fast or give alms (the three basic spiritual disciplines in Scripture) in order to be seen by others. For, when you do this, “you already have your reward,” Jesus warned them (Matthew 6:1;5;16). And Lent clearly has this dangerous potential for us.
I am always struck on Ash Wednesday when the ashes have been imposed on my forehead in the sign of the cross just how easily this act of public devotion, sincere and well-intentioned though it may be, can nevertheless become the very thing that Jesus warned us about. It’s hard for ashes on your forehead not to be seen by others. It’s hard not to feel just a smidgen of spiritual pride when you’ve got the sign of the cross prominently displayed for all to see just how spiritually serious and religiously observant we are. It seems to me to be the dictionary definition of “being seen of men.” And so, in recent years, while I have gone ahead and received the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the minute the service is over, I have immediately washed my face before anyone outside the community of faith can see me. This year as I did so the Scripture reading that I had just heard in the worship service echoed loudly in my head – “And when you fast… wash your face!” An important part of this post Ash Wednesday cleaning up ritual for me is that as I am deliberately removing the mark of penance from my face I am consciously asking that God will transfer it directly to my heart. That, after all, it seems to me, is where a genuine Lent must be observed, and is the only safeguard against Lent becoming what those who refuse to keep fear the most – a public display of works righteousness.
The other serious objection, from my point of view, to the observance of Lent that must be addressed is the idea that repentance is a spiritual discipline that can be restricted to the 40 days of Lent, and maybe the four weeks of Advent, although I have only rarely seen or heard it seriously addressed as a pre-Christmas theme. There are just too many parties, parades and festivals in December for talk of penance to gain much traction. We are much more likely to gain 5 pounds than to actually do any fasting during Advent. And so, that leaves Lent, just 40 days for self-examination, sorrow for sin and growth in grace. I once heard a spiritual teacher describe Lent as the “tithe” of the Christian year, the percentage of days that we owe God each year which when “paid” then frees up the rest of our time to spend however we want, doing as we please.
Roland Barnes explained that the reason why he doesn’t observe Lent himself or promote its observance in the churches that he pastors is not because he is somehow opposed to seasons of prayer and fasting or a serious reflection on the life of Christ, especially His death, burial and resurrection, but rather because he is in favor of such things! His argument is that Biblically self-denial cannot be restricted to just 40 days each spring, but is rather intended to be the daily experience of the believer. “If something is sinful,” or not particularly conducive to our spiritual well-being and growth, he writes, then “we ought to be abstaining from it, fasting from it, every hour, of every day, of every week of the year.”
This is, in fact, what St. Benedict taught. Known for his balanced approach to spirituality, St. Benedict nevertheless wrote that our lives “ought to be a continuous Lent” (The Rule, Chapter 49), and this sounds to me to be perfectly in keeping with our Lord’s repeated instruction to those who would be His disciples –
- Matthew 10:38 – and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
- Matthew 16:24 – Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
- Mark 8:34 – Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
- Luke 9:23 – Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
- Luke 14:27 – And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
If Lent is played as an attempt to evade these daily demands of discipleship, then it must be resisted. But if Lent can be viewed as an annual intensive, the spiritual equivalent of the “two-a-days” that football players go through in August to get themselves physically conditioned for the long season of games that get played throughout the fall and into the winter, then I can see how it has its place and makes its contribution. And so, not ignoring the dangers inherent in the practice, I am nevertheless one of those Christians who chooses to observe Lent. I don’t insist that you join me, and I won’t think less of you should you choose not to. But I have always found the observance of a holy Lent to be of great benefit to me spiritually.
Mary Lynn and I do deep water aerobics for exercise. We try to get into the pool three times a week at the local “Y.” The quality of the instructors for these sessions ranges wildly, and when we have one that is especially subpar, I always try to remember what Chris Alexander, our very first instructor, always told us. “You can always get something out of it, in fact, you will only ever get out of it what you put into it.” And so, every time I am in the pool, I make an honest effort no matter how poor the instructor may be. We will suffer through weeks, and sometimes even months of less-than-ideal-instructors, doing our best to get something out of it, trying to make the proverbial silk purse out of the sow’s ear. And then, we’ll show up one evening and on the deck will be the retired Director of Water Aerobics at our “Y,” a wonderful teacher who is a stickler on form and progression. Every couple of months there she is to put an end to all of the bad habits that are beginning to form in our technique and to call us out on any lackadaisical drift that she may detect in the way that we are going at things because nobody is paying any attention to it. It’s exhausting, and wonderful. An hour with her every couple of months gets us focused and motivated again, and I find that this is exactly what Lent does for me and my spiritual life. It’s the annual tune-up that gets my soul straightened-up and flying right, and because I need it, I always welcome the arrival of Lent. It’s exhausting, and wonderful. DBS+