Lent begins next week on Ash Wednesday, March 2, but have you ever wondered what Lent is really about? Which is it: an unnecessary legalistic practice or a life-giving spiritual discipline?
By Christine McParland
Lent is a spiritually loaded term. To some, it’s a lengthy period of drudgery (why would anyone willingly give up coffee or Instagram for six weeks?). To others, it’s a legalistic ritual that should be avoided. Still others find Lent to be a spiritually fruitful season that they anticipate each year.
If you come from a background or denomination that doesn’t traditionally observe Lent, you may be wondering what the fuss is about. Which is it: an unnecessary legalistic practice or a life-giving spiritual discipline? How can you approach this season when there are strongly conflicting opinions about it among Christians of various churches and denominations?
But instead of engaging in the “to-Lent-or-not-to-Lent” debate, what if there is another way to view the weeks leading up to Easter? What if we viewed Lent through the lens not of obligation but of opportunity—an invitation to draw closer to Christ by journeying with him to the cross and empty tomb?
Through the spiritual disciplines of Lent, this season can create space and provide focus in our lives, preparing our hearts to remember Christ’s passion and celebrate his resurrection.
Lent helps us create space through fasting.
The practices most commonly associated with Lent include fasting and “giving up” something for the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (not including Sundays). Some Orthodox and other Eastern churches fast from entire food groups, including meat and dairy. But many Lenten observers simply choose one favorite food or beverage to give up, like sweets or coffee.
Fasting also doesn’t always need to be related to food. People may choose to abstain from TV, social media, and other things or habits that are often time-consuming but rarely spiritually fruitful.
The intention behind fasting is not to be an end in itself but to create space for prayer. Fasting encourages this in three ways:
1) By saving the time you would have spent on the thing you’re fasting from—whether skipping a meal or foregoing a Netflix binge.
2) By serving as a built-in reminder to pray. Abstaining from that Snickers bar during an afternoon sugar craving reminds you not only what you gave up for Lent, but why you gave it up—to focus on your relationship with God through prayer. (It’s also a good opportunity to pray for strength!)
3) By increasing awareness of our dependence on God. Feeling weak is natural when it comes to fasting from food for a time, because our bodies literally depend on it (be sure to check with your doctor before attempting this type of fast!). But even fasting from something you feel like you “need” to get through the day (coffee, Instagram, etc.) can remind you that you depend on God alone for everything you need.
Though fasting may not be fun, it is nevertheless a gift because of the space it creates in our lives for prayer and the freedom it offers us from habits and addictions that distract us from our dependence on God.
Lent helps us focus on Christ.
Instead of fasting from something for Lent, some Christians will add another spiritual discipline to their daily routines, such as reading the Bible or spending more time in prayer. While prayer and Bible reading are disciplines that shouldn’t be limited to Lent, focusing on them for a season can help you develop better spiritual habits that will continue throughout the year.
If you’re not sure where to start, pick one spiritual discipline you’re not currently doing (or would like to do more of). Here are some suggestions:
1) Read through the New Testament during Lent. If you want to make daily Bible reading a habit but aren’t quite ready to read through the entire Bible in a year, this can be a great way to immerse yourself in God’s Word while having a reachable, short-term goal.
2) Find a time and place to pray daily. Set your alarm fifteen minutes earlier. Designate a corner of your bedroom or a “prayer closet” where you can be alone with God. If your home environment is too distracting, try going for a walk or finding a church that has a chapel where you can pray.
3) Set a Scripture memory goal, such as memorizing an entire chapter, Psalm, or passage. Isaiah 53 and Psalm 51 are excellent passages for Lent! Try to memorize one verse per day until you’ve committed the entire selection to memory, then prayerfully meditate on it throughout the rest of Lent.
Lent prepares our hearts to celebrate Easter.
The purpose of Lent is wrapped up in Easter; Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection are such monumental realities, we can’t possibly begin to appreciate their significance with only a few days’ preparation. By taking an extended period to focus on our Lord through daily spiritual disciplines, we are giving our souls the gift of space to receive him more deeply and celebrate Easter more fully.
When we shift our perspective on Lent from obligation to opportunity, we recognize an invitation to grow in our faith and draw closer to Christ—which is ultimately the desire of all Christians from every denomination. Let Lent be a launching pad to renew your commitment to Christ and follow him more closely in the weeks preceding Easter and throughout the year, your whole life long.