Many of my peers participated in Lenten fasts… even though they also came from evangelical or other Protestant denominations. I began to wonder: Had I been missing out on something meaningful to my own faith journey?
By Christine McParland
Growing up, the extent of my Easter preparations included attending a Good Friday service at church and coloring a dozen hard-boiled eggs. The season of Lent was something associated with more sacramental traditions that I didn’t belong to (and therefore didn’t need to worry about). My primary exposure to Lent came from Catholic friends in grade school, one of whom anxiously asked at my birthday party every March, “Are you serving chocolate? I gave it up for Lent!”
It wasn’t until college that I began to seriously consider this sacred season. Many of my peers participated in Lenten fasts—usually from Facebook, coffee, or some other college necessity—even though they also came from evangelical or other Protestant denominations. I began to wonder: Had I been missing out on something meaningful to my own faith journey? Would observing Lent help me become a better Christian?
So began my experimentations in Lenten observances. Instead of giving something up, I tried adding a spiritual discipline. As an art major, I wanted to honor God with my artistic practice, so I resolved to draw every day during Lent. But most days found me hastily scribbling in my sketchbook late at night after a long day of classes and homework, anxious to fulfill my obligation so I could go to bed.
One Lent I committed to reading the Passion week narrative from a different Gospel each day, which resulted in speed-reading through the much longer narrative in John’s Gospel every fourth day. My first actual Lenten fast was from the sugary coffee creamer I was addicted to, and another year I took the plunge and gave up coffee altogether (I’m still not sure how I survived that Lent!).
Eventually I realized that most of my Lenten observances were driven by a desire to perform in order to earn God’s favor—or at least to boost my spiritual self-esteem. If I could just discipline myself more, maybe I would become a “good enough” Christian. Then maybe I could rest in the assurance that God was pleased with me. But this mindset had inadvertently shifted the focus away from my relationship with Christ to my spiritual performance.
Once I recognized this unhealthy (and unbiblical) attitude toward Lent, I took a break because I realized my motives didn’t honor God. More than food or social media or anything I could fast from, my perfectionism was hindering my spiritual growth. I valued this spiritual discipline as a biblical tool to grow closer to Christ, but I recognized my own legalistic tendencies to focus on the practice of Lent instead of what it points to: Christ himself.
Does this mean that I discard Lent (or any spiritual discipline), as if the fault lies with the disciplines themselves? Absolutely not! To the contrary, such practices can be both meaningful and redemptive. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they can serve as “rudders on a ship” to help keep us on course amidst the storms of life.
As with all spiritual disciplines, God cares more about our hearts than about the specific practices we engage in. Do we participate in Lenten fasts for the sake of seeking Christ, or to inflate our own spiritual egos? To enjoy the favor that we know is already ours in him, or to try to earn it on our own merit? These are questions we must ask ourselves to ensure our hearts are right with God before committing to any spiritual discipline.
So what am I doing for Lent this year? At the time of writing this, I still haven’t decided, but I continue to pray about it. I want to accept the invitation of this sacred season to follow Christ more intentionally, preparing my heart to remember his death and resurrection. These forty days leading up to Good Friday provide an opportunity to develop life-giving habits in my spiritual walk, but that will look differently each Lent. I need to follow where the Holy Spirit leads me, for only he can prepare my heart for Easter—whether or not he calls me to give up anything for Lent.
Update: Ironically, like my grade-school friend in the first paragraph of this post, I decided to give up chocolate as a daily reminder of the true purpose of this season. During the Ash Wednesday service a couple of nights ago, I thought about my small sacrifice and the discomfort of denying myself a favorite food for several weeks. But sitting in the packed sanctuary with the vaulted ceiling and stained glass, I finally realized that I was more concerned about missing this opportunity to draw closer to Christ than I was about missing a daily treat. I have come to see this season not as a guilt trip of obligation or duty, but as an invitation to journey with Jesus as we remember his suffering and death. What better way to prepare us to remember and celebrate his resurrection— even as we look forward in hope to our own.
The Promise of Lent Devotional by Chris Tiegreen
Lent is a time of remembering Christ’s sacrifice—and yet it is not meant to be depressing; it is meant to be reorienting. The 40-day holy season is one of transition when we turn our eyes away from fading disappointments and move ever closer to the radiance of Easter hope.
This is the purpose of The Promise of Lent Devotional: to stir up the hope that God has given us in the midst of a fallen world. Each day you’ll read of death and new life, temptation and the power to overcome it, the life and ministry of Jesus, and the transformative power of God. Because when we gaze at God’s true nature—his sacrificial love and his glorious resurrection—everything changes. The past fades, the tomb’s stone rolls away, and our hearts awaken to faith once again. Discover that to be true this year, through The Promise of Lent Devotional.
Learn more and read an excerpt here!