Some thoughts on Lent

As this week was the beginning of Lent, there has been much blogging on it. Here are a couple examples:

Homeboys on Lenten Fasting

This post is fairly negative, arguing against the notion that Lent connects you to church history. Keith Miller argues instead that evangelicalism (by which he really seems to mean the Reformed tradition – based on his examples, at least) is a tradition that doesn’t observe Lent. This is a neat little argument, but in the end it continued to cut off evangelicalism from almost 1500 years of the church’s history. Which I think is the point made by those incorporating Lent into the evangelical tradition. And there are traditions of Lutheranism and Methodism and even evangelical Anglicans who have never had this aversion to Lent. What do we do with all that history?

A second question is to ask whether it may be that the Reformed approach hasn’t got this one quite right. I consider myself reformed, in at least a broad sense – though I suspect some of my Reformed friends would push back a bit. I consider myself a dispensationalist, have exegetical questions at least about that “L” in TULIP, am more free church in polity, and have a few other pieces of theological baggage. But it is at least possible that some aspects of the earlier Reformed rejection of Lent were either wrong, were over-reactions, or perhaps were contextual rejections that might look different in a modern world. I don’t know; I’ve never really done the Lent thing, but I don’t doubt that some find it helpful – and perhaps I would too if I were in a community where the practice could be properly grounded. I just wonder…

A Vent about Lent

Here’s another, linked to by Carl Truman I think. Again, if Lent is bringing you guilt and causing you to have spiritual issues, don’t do it. But I wonder again if this is a rather distorted (or at least a possible distortion) of what Lent might be about. If ashes would be an idol, don’t do it – but are you accusing all those who do that of idolatry or simply admitting your inability to not turn things into idols? I don’t know. Complaints that it is a “sign of mourning and death” and that you have too much of them already? Don’t we all – and yet, perhaps there is room in life for a season that focuses on those aspects of Christian (and human) experience. Maybe not for you, but still some people may find that helpful and orient them again to the fact that our life is not all peaches and cream. And I don’t get the complaint about spiritual disciplines. I think one can safely say that American Christianity as a whole (this is me for sure) doesn’t focus enough on these disciplines. So a season devoted to one may be a good thing. To be sure,”strivings cease” – but that seems remarkably unbiblical if it means I don’t exercise myself (including necessary means) to godliness.

Repent of Lent

One final one (I bet there are many more like these, but I ran across these). It notes a wide range of Lenten observances and at least is a bit more open (“You are indeed free to fast, or not to fast.”). And the central point – living out the Christian life by loving your neighbor and embracing the love of Christ – I couldn’t agree more.

But having said that, at least in my neck of the evangelical woods, we don’t have to repent of Lent; we barely know it exists. And we seem mostly to be restricted to rather individualist piety. So perhaps at least some of us could benefit from something more. And I am concerned that the reasons for repentance given are not entirely convincing. There are two given: 1) the problem of pride and deceit and 2) the uniqueness of Christ’s sufferings.

Yes, but in the first case, the concern applies to anything we might do as a means to sanctification. I can be proud that I read the Bible, that I pray, that I practice Lent. In fact, Lent is the kind of self-denial that ought to undermine pride precisely because it focuses on Christ’s death. It’s pointing to Good Friday and Easter, for Pete’s sake! Of course it could be abused, but that seems to be a more fundamental heart problem. The second objection is also problematic. What to make of the New Testament teaching that our life is indeed shaped in cruciform way? Why cannot focused periods of self-denial help us more fully recognize that reality and prepare us for the suffering that comes through faithful obedience? I’m not sure; and I will confess this has not ever been a big part of my individual spiritual practice. So perhaps I am idealizing the green grass on the other side of the fence.

I guess for me, the point I would make (as a non-Lenten observing, reformed, low church evangelical) is that there ought to be freedom to practice or not, but that there seems to be a bit too much a polemical cast of trying to disparage those whose practices are unlike our or in justifying our practices (or lack of them). I don’t think most evangelicals suffer from too much of the spiritual disciplines or of more consistent spiritual practices (or of the church calendar), so I’m not sure why I should get so worked up if others find them helpful. If we don’t do Lent, let’s live out the gospel in the fullest way possible with the tools we have. If we practice Lent, let’s do it with the centrality of the gospel in place, and as a means of pointing to Good Friday and Easter as celebrations of what Christ has done for us.

Update: Here’s an alternative perspective that makes some good points I think.

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