Lent Isn’t About Giving Something Up, but Gaining Something Precious
Twice a year, many of our friends and neighbors suddenly become very interested in the liturgical seasons of the church calendar. This happens, interestingly, whether they are Christian or not.
The church season we’re most familiar with is Advent, the period leading up to Christmas. Here at GoodKind, we’re big fans of Advent. Measure it as 25 days or four Sundays (people have strong opinions here); either way, we love it. Advent is a time to celebrate God’s literal presence with us. As I wrote in our Advent Blocks guide, it is the celebration that “God has come to earth to stay.” What’s not to love?
The other familiar church season, though, is a bit more of a downer. It’s called “Lent,” and even though it happens during the spring (flowers! sunshine!), it’s a much more somber practice. So it continues to surprise me just how popular it is to “give something up” for Lent.
I get why non-Christians would want to celebrate Christmas. Christmas is fun. But Lent? Fasting and mourning and all that? What’s the draw?
New Year’s Resolutions (For Real This Time)
I suspect that the undying interest in Lent says less about our religious passions and more about our desires to start over. The key question for most people during Lent is, “What are you giving up?” And the answers sound like an echo of January’s New Year’s resolutions. No alcohol. No sweets. No social media. Lent has become a spring-time booster shot for all the resolutions you botched a few weeks’ back.
There are worse things, of course, then trying to break bad habits. Intentionally abstaining from something for 40 days can certainly kickstart a long-term change, especially if it’s done in the context of community. So if you want to ditch Facebook, sure, do it during Lent. Why not?
But we’re missing out if the only question we ask is, “What am I giving up?” Especially if the subtext of that question is, “How can I make myself better?”
This approach feels more American than Christian, transforming a somber season into an opportunity for greater achievement. More winning. A better you. It’s self-denial for the purposes of self-improvement.
Giving something up for Lent just might lead you to some better habits. But that’s not really the point.
Then what is the point?, you ask?
What a great question!
Not So Fast: A Different Approach to Lent
Here’s what you and I and your mom and your cousin and that random influencer on Instagram all tend to get right about Lent: It’s a time of self-denial. Dating back almost all the way to Jesus, the church has practiced a period of fasting for the 40 days leading up to Easter.
The nature of the fast itself varies from culture to culture and century to century. Often the fast meant eliminating meat from your diet. Or all animal products. Or alcohol. Or sex. Or all of the above. Like any fast, the practice was meant to remove a basic pleasure, replacing it with spiritual practices, like prayer.
The timing of the Lenten fast is meant to line up with Jesus’ fast at the beginning of his ministry. And the number 40 was significant, too, since that’s how long Jesus fasted. Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to do a 40-day fast: Moses and Elijah, two of the most significant figures of the Old Testament, also practiced a 40 day fast.
And here’s what’s significant about all three of those fasts: Their fasting was connected to a significant meeting with God. And not in the order you might expect, either. Their fasting didn’t prepare them for God’s presence. It was a response to God’s presence.
Moses fasted for 40 days just after he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). He didn’t fast to get ready for God to do something. He fasted because he had met with God.
Elijah fasted for 40 days just after he saw God move in power, answering his prayer with fire on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 19:8). He didn’t fast to get God’s attention. He fasted because he had just seen God in action.
Jesus fasted for 40 days just after being baptized and hearing the Father’s voice declare, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” (Matthew 3:17–4:2). He didn’t fast to get ready for a meeting with the Father. He fasted as an overflow of the Fatherly approval he had just heard.
Why does this order matter? Because it shows us that the context of fasting—the context of Lent—isn’t just about beating our bodies into submission. This isn’t self-denial for its own sake. This is self-denial as a response to God’s presence in our lives. Seen in this light, fasting and Lent are less about giving something up and more about gaining something precious. As Jesus himself said, quoting Deuteronomy, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
The ultimate promise of Lent isn’t that we’ll kick our caffeine addiction or spend less time on our phones. The ultimate promise is that we have access to God’s presence—and not because of a spiritual practice, either. Remember: Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all met with God first. The spiritual practice came second.
God Is Already Near
So what might all of this mean for you this Lent? Should you give something up or not? If so, what? And how might that “fasting” look different?
I believe there are a number of ways to faithfully lean into Lent. Abstain from alcohol. Fast from food on Fridays. Lay aside some luxury you’ve grown used to. The details here aren’t as important as the posture: Are you trying to clean up your life (and using Lent as a convenient season to do it)? Or are you responding to the God who has already come close to you?
If you are following Jesus, God is already as near to you as he was to Jesus himself. He declares over you, as he did over Jesus, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased!” In Christ, he has shown you his power, more miraculous than what Elijah saw. In Christ, he has given you his good Word, more certain and enduring than what Moses received.
If you believe that, then I believe you’re ready for Lent. Because Lent isn’t about punishing yourself. And it’s not about self-improvement. It’s about responding to a God that is with you because in Christ he has forgiven you.