There’s an interesting article on the Federalist website about the dangers of observing Lent. I see the author’s point, although I disagree with his conclusions. He writes, “We all desperately want to believe that sin is outside of us, something that goes into us and defiles us. That it is a particular act, or behavior, or excess, that we can readily regulate and control should we choose . . . The problem with even the evangelical, self-imposed fast is that it creates a little law for us to obey, a rule that is within our reach. It is, not surprisingly, a law of our own making, for the law of God — love God and neighbor with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength — is impossible to obey, even for a moment. If we fulfill our personal law, we have confirmed ourselves in the conceit that we aren’t so badly off after all.”
I see that danger of taking pride in spiritual disciplines. You’ll see a lot of Lenten humble brags on social media over six weeks: rather ostentatious displays of self-denial. But of course, it’s not limited to Lenten fasts. Bible study, prayer, scripture memorization — all good things that are meant to build our faith — can also become a stumbling block when we take pride in them. I think we’ve all know people who could recite chapters of the Bible, but had not love and were, therefore, a total pain in the butt. (My paraphrase of I Corinthians 13:1-3.)
A Lenten fast can even become totally detached from the purpose of focusing on Christ and his amazing sacrifice for us, as the other Federalist article on Lent shows. (Seriously, the Federalist? That’s the best you can do? Oh, look, a Lenten cocktail. smh.)
But the abuse of a good thing doesn’t negate the use. And I think Lent can be a very good thing. A couple of years ago, I wrote a whole post laying out why I think it’s good — although certainly not required — to observe Lent. I won’t rehash that lengthy post here, but suffice it to say that Lent helps me to stop and focus.
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It is so easy to go through the routine: routine devotions, routine days, even routine worship. But Lent steps into the middle of the busy, distracted routine and says, “Stop.” Lent says, “Look at the cross — really look at it.” Fasting during Lent, whether it’s from food or other indulgence says, “Die to your flesh so that you can live richly in Christ.” (A lot of people miss the “so that.” Without the “so that” the fast is just so much asceticism. Meh.)
I’m weary and distracted and caught up in the endless cycle of my daily life. I know I need to go through the purging that a season of fasting can bring. I can feel the weight of temporal and worldly cares clinging to me like barnacle. I know I need to stop and lay aside those distractions so that I can draw closer to God. I’m thankful for the season of Lent that reminds me to do that.
Of course, you don’t have to observe Lent. It’s not a requirement. You don’t have to celebrate Easter, or Christmas, or any calendar occurrence. But for me, and for so many Christians around the world, it is a helpful way to grow closer to our Lord.