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Here’s your comprehensive Lenten Guide: what it is, how we celebrate Lent, why, what to give up for Lent, is Lent in the Bible and more.
A lot of Christians don’t know what Lent is, other than some vague recollection that it happens before Easter. In fact, fewer than 25% of Americans celebrate it (source).
However, because it can be an incredibly meaningful time of reflection for faith focused families and a become a treasured family tradition in Christian homes, it’s worth learning more about.
What Is Lent?
Lent is the pre-Easter season observed primarily by those in the Catholic Church as well as by some Protestant denominations.
Lent is a season of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Easter.BBC
It is a time of self-sacrifice, spiritual discipline, and preparation to fully rejoice in the miracle of the resurrection on Easter.
It is intended to be a time of reflection on Christ and His sacrifice, repentance from your sin that necessitated His coming to earth, and to be a season where you focus on prayer more intently.
Lent is celebrated for 40 days and starts on what is commonly referred to as Ash Wednesday (in the Catholic Church and western world) or Clean Monday (in the Orthodox Church or eastern nations) and ends on Easter. Technically it is a 46 day period, as Sundays are exempt from fasting.
Is Lent In The Bible?
In a word: NO.
Lent is actually not a Biblical discipline, but rather a church tradition. Church history traces the first observation of Lent to the second century A.D. where it was only several days (not the 40 it is today).
Others believe it sprang from the tradition of a new convert’s 40 days of reflection to prepare for the Baptism they would undergo on Easter Sunday. There are records of this type of observation as early as 325 A.D.
Similar to Advent, it’s an added season that still offers much value to as Christian’s faith…but just like Advent, it’s important to recognize that it is not specifically addressed or commanded in Scripture.
However, there are many verses upon which the practice of Lent is based as well as the timeline of it.
The 40 days of Lent are because of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness to prepare for His time in ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) and the number of years Israel wandered in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (Numbers 33:38, Deuteronomy 1:3).
The focus of Lent is fasting and repenting from sin, which is a theme throughout the Word.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,Joel 2:12-13
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
Why Do We Celebrate Lent?
Lent is a choice, not a Biblical mandate. So why do I choose to honor it and invite my children to join me?
Because it re-focuses our heart from the busyness of life onto the cross of Christ, which is essential:
- We must understand the gravity of our sin to appreciate how desperately we need atonement.
- We must understand the futility of our own efforts to atone for our own sins to fully grasp our desperate need for a Savior.
- We must understand our desperation for a Savior to truly embrace with gratitude the work of Jesus on the cross and what it really accomplished.
- We must understand and grieve His death, even through our gratitude, to celebrate fully the resurrection.
How Do You Celebrate Lent?
Lent is less about how you celebrate and more about how you prepare to celebrate. By that I mean Lent itself isn’t something we celebrate in and of itself; rather, it’s something we observe.
And during this season of Lent we prepare to fully celebrate Easter.
It is traditionally honored by fasting specific foods and usually bad habits, as well. Lent is marked by a season of sacrifice and repentance, not indulgence and celebration.
However, honoring Lent can be somewhat dangerous, as well as beautiful, and because of that it should be approached with intentional focus.
The Pros And Cons Of Lent
The Danger Of Lent
The danger Lent is the same danger of any extra-Biblical activity: it can shift our faith and our focus from the finished work of Christ on the cross to our imperfect efforts of striving.
Lent, as well as other church traditions, can become a carefully masked path back to the Law and away from God’s good and perfect grace if one is not aware of it.
You see, it can by easy for me to become self-righteous about my fasting and denial, beginning to think that these works are right and good.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.Isaiah 64:6a
Our works are never good and never enough. They will always fall short of the mark and we will always need a Savior.
The only vehicle by which we are saved is faith in Christ and His work.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Ephesians 2:8-9
The Beautiful Grace Of The Gospel In Lent
However, if you can avoid falling into a justified-by-the-Law, works-focused mentality, the period of Lent can make the grace of the Gospel that much more tangible in your life.
It can point you towards Him and help you know Him better, as Biblical fasting is intended to do.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…Philippians 3:8-10 (emphasis mine)
Indeed, knowing Him this way is a tremendously beautiful way to honor God and know Him more.
What To Give Up For Lent
While many Catholics (and even some Protestant denominations) have a fasting menu of what they can and cannot eat during this time, our family takes a different approach…and I’d like to invite you to join us.
But first, let’s look at what not to give up for Lent and the types of fasting that will please God during this time.
How Not To Fast For Lent
Traditionally speaking, people in the Old Testament would mourn by putting ashes on their heads, wearing sackcloths, tearing at them, and looking generally pitiful.
They did it to be more holy before God and to feel better about themselves. This is a law-focused mindset, that behavior will lead to favor.
However, through the prophet Isaiah, God revealed that it did not please Him. He saw their fasting, but He also saw how they treated other people. The state of their hearts and their lack of love for others made the Lord displeased.
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,Isaiah 58:3-5
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Fasting That Pleases God
Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine; it was turning religious tradition upside down and showing that the heart matters more than behavior.
This was not a new concept at all; it was what the Lord was showing centuries earlier when He declared the fast that pleased Him.
“Is not this the fast that I choose:Isaiah 58:6-7, 9b-10 (emphasis mine)
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
…If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
Fasting is abstaining, traditionally from food. But here the Lord asks them to abstain from something else entirely:
- the yoke of oppression for those who work for you
- accusing others/being critical of them
- speaking ill of people
- not enslaving others
However, it’s not just a removal of these things. God was also calling His people to do something.
It wasn’t enough to stop being oppressive; the Lord wanted them to feed the hungry and minister to the hurting. He wanted them to open their tables in hospitality, clothe those in need, and give of themselves.
There was no keeping a distance between yourself and someone less fortunate; the fast that honors God was a sacrifice of comfort. The fast that honors God wasn’t putting on mourning garments and ashes, but rather dying to self and living as Christ to those in need of Him.
When you think about it this way, it sounds a lot like the Early Church of Acts 2…when the message of the Savior spread rapidly and thousands were saved daily.
So…What Should You Give Up For Lent?
That’s a really good question…and one you should truly pray about because I believe that it’s an intensely personal answer.
But for starters, we can take our cues from Isaiah’s words and give up unkind words, self focus, and excluding others.
We can give up the things that distract us from our call to love and glorify God, love and honor our husbands, love and disciple our children. We can give up the idols in our lives.