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Rethinking Lent | what it is, why we do it, and how it brings us closer to God

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The 40 days leading up to Easter (beginning on Ash Wednesday) is the perfect time for all Christians to take a step back, examine their lives, and make a renewed effort to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

When I first became a Christian, I enthusiastically participated in this practice of giving something up for 40 days.  Now, nearly a decade in, I am rethinking the exact place of Lent in my own life.  What purpose do these 40 days serve?  And how can my participation in it further shape me into the person that God made me to be?

Lent offers each of us a precious opportunity to walk alongside Christ and to be further shaped into his image. 

It offers us a space to withdraw from the standards of the world (where being wealthy and well-liked and powerful and accomplished are the standards we're judged by) and to rest instead in the love of God.

=> Get some creative ideas on what to do for Lent this year over here.

why do we do Lent?

What is Lent?

Lent is a period of 40 days leading up to Easter and beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Christians around the world observe Lent, including many Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians.  Lent is a season for reflection and preparation for Easter.

By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ's sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days.

Lent is typically observed by fasting, both from food and festivities.

And while not all Christians observe Lent, and while Lent has historically been observed through various fasts, I think that we would benefit from rethinking Lent today and reconsidering it's purpose in our own lives.

Lent is not just about giving up cookies or candy or coffee.

It is a time for us to intentionally mirror Christ's own temptations in the desert, and in so doing, to solidify God's reign in our hearts and in our lives.

Why 40 Days?

40 days is a significant period of time both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

  • In Genesis, the flood that destroyed the earth was brought on by 40 days and nights of rain.
  • The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land.
  • Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai.
  • Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting in preparation for his ministry.

Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the event of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness.  After his baptism, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).

The devil tests Jesus in 3 different ways:

  • Turn stones into bread
  • Throw himself down from the highest point of the temple and be rescued by angels
  • Inherit all the kingdoms of the world if he will worship the devil

Jesus refutes each of these temptations by citing Scripture.  After his successful defeat of the devil, Jesus then begins his public ministry with preaching and healing (and calling his disciples).

lead us not into temptation

The Significance of Jesus’ Temptation by the Devil

There have been a lot of commentaries written on Christ’s temptation in the desert.

While it may seem strange, at first glance, that the Spirit would lead Jesus out to be tempted by the devil immediately after his baptism, we can see in this passage Jesus’ defeat of 3 very common temptations that we all face at some point (perhaps many points) in our lives.

This episode of Christ’s temptation solidifies the priorities and the reign of God over the priorities of the world and the reign of the devil.

Henri Nouwen identifies the 3 temptations of Christ as follows:

  1. The temptation to be relevant.
  2. The temptation to be popular by doing something remarkable.
  3.  The temptation to be powerful in your leadership, to lead rather than be led.

We can also recognize in the temptation to turn bread into stone, the temptation to material prosperity and comfort.

In the temptation to throw himself down and be rescued by angels we see something of an emotional temptation, a temptation to question God’s love: If you really loved me, you’d send angels to my rescue.

And in the temptation to rule all earthly kingdoms, there is not only the temptation of power, but also the temptation of control.  Who among us doesn’t want to be able to control every aspect of our lives?

How Lent Parallels the Temptation of Christ

By giving something up for Lent, we Christians are mirroring Christ’s temptation in the desert, and in so doing we are solidifying God’s reign in our own lives.

While historically, fasting for Lent has often involved fasting from certain foods, recently many Christians are choosing to give up certain vices for Lent: coffee, or chocolate, or whatnot.

If we want our Lenten fasts to be truly preparation for Easter, to help to solidify God’s reign in our hearts and our lives, and to mirror the temptation of Christ in the desert, our fasts should not be arbitrary.

Lenten abstinence is not about an exercise of self-will on our parts.  It’s not about trying our very hardest to not touch a chocolate bar for 40 days, and thus prove that we are stronger than Satan’s attempt to raise our collective blood sugar.

Lent is about recognizing and affirming God’s supreme reign in your life.  It is about saying “no” to the standards of the world and saying “yes” to God.

C.S. Lewis has something very insightful to say about this process in Mere Christianity.  There, he writes that “what God cares about is not exactly our actions.  What he cares about is that we should be creatures of a certain kind or quality - the kind of creatures He intended us to be - creatures related to Himself in a certain way” (Book III, Chapter 12).

Our attempt to practice the Christian virtues, and in this case our attempt at fasting from something during Lent, is a practice that we are bound to fail at.

But our trying, and our failing, (and our getting back up and trying and failing and trying and failing again) is meant to get us to the point where we “turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’ (Book III, Chapter 12).

We are to recognize our complete dependence on God, the fact that we cannot climb back up to moral perfection on our own, but that we need God to extend us grace, and to work in us to form us into the kind of creatures who are at home in Heaven.

And so, Lent is - at least in part - an exercise in humility.  We cannot do this on our own.  But until we try our level best to do this on our own, we will not really know the extent of our dependence on God.

And yet, Lent is not just about trying and failing and then throwing up the sponge and saying, “Ok, God, you must work in me.  I cannot do this on my own.”

It is also about rejecting material comfort, worldly power, relevance, popularity, doubt, and control.  

Sure, we need to have some level of comfort if we are to be happy, fruitful, and even physically safe.  But we cannot make wealth and comfort an idol.

We should try to remain relevant in order to be able to speak into people’s lives today, and not to be completely ineffective in our irrelevance.  But we cannot aim to be relevant above all else.  We cannot sacrifice truth for relevance.  We cannot make popularity and relevance the thing that we strive for.  And so on with each of our (and Christ’s) temptations.

And so, during Lent, we aim to walk along with Jesus through these temptations.  While we may fail (I failed at being more charitable last year on the very first day that Lent began!), we recognize that God, working in us, can transform us bit by bit into heavenly creatures here and now.

And we assent to his reign in our hearts and in our lives.

Want to try something new and creative for Lent?  Check out this list of 30 creative things to give up for Lent + 16 things to start doing for Lent.  (Because why does Lent have to always be about giving something up?)