When I was a little girl, I knew Lent as a tradition that was largely practiced by my friends in the Catholic faith. In recent years, the tradition has become more and more popular among Protestant Evangelical Christians. Suddenly there is an avalanche of magazine articles, books, and blog posts expounding on why we should practice Lent and how we should go about practicing Lent.
I’ve got to tell you, it makes me wary.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with practicing Lent. God uses “spiritual facilitators” in our lives all the time. For me, it’s being out in nature or listening to music that helps me connect with Him. So if giving something up or changing your typical behavior for 40 days helps you focus on the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection and helps you to develop a closer relationship with God, then more power to you.
Here’s why I’m cautious: First, we want to make sure that practicing Lent is not an attempt to appease God after having lived a God-free life the rest of the year. Church on Sunday, ashes on Wednesday, and 40 days of Lent does not a relationship make. He does not want our religious activity. He wants our hearts. (I Samuel 15:22) (Psalm 51:16-17)
Second, we want to be super careful of the example we set, of the expectations we put on ourselves and others. If we practice Lent, we need to be clear that it’s NOT an obligation that every “good Christian” should fulfill. Lent is not a biblical directive. It’s not even a biblical concept. I’m concerned that practicing Lent will be misinterpreted as One More Thing we must do to be “right” with God.
The whole point of Christianity is that we can’t earn our salvation. We can’t earn God’s love. We can never do enough to be perfect. Christianity is all about God’s love for us and grace, grace, grace. But if the Christian faith is about grace then why are we adding customs and rules and rituals?
Jesus had this same beef with the religious people of his day. Jesus was crazy about the normal people; it was the religious people who ticked Him off. In Matthew 23 He accused the Pharisees and teachers of the law of piling heavy burdens on people’s shoulders with the extra religious rules and obligations they added. Now let me clarify, many of these religious people meant well. They were mostly good guys who tried to live good lives and follow the tenets of their faith … just like most of us who call ourselves Christians today. But they made one enormous mistake: they made it all about behavior and not about a real relationship with the living God. We want to make sure we’re not doing the same thing today. Spiritual facilitators are great. Getting stuck in rituals is not.
Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
I think that sometimes we forget that we’re free. I know that I do. Deep inside I know I’m far from perfect, and sometimes I fall into the trap of looking for ways to make myself better. Maybe it’s to get God’s approval, or maybe just so that I can face myself in the mirror. Do you sometimes feel that way, too? We forget that Jesus already did the work for us when He died. We will never be perfect while we’re on this planet, but Jesus is enough. When we said yes to Him, He wiped our slate clean and we are FREE. Free to love Him just because we love Him and not because we have to earn His approval. Free to love others just because we love others and not because we have to get more brownie points. Free to mess up and fail and free to fall into our Heavenly Dad’s lap, knowing that He loves us anyway. Free. Free. Free. So why are we adding rituals?
I believe that some people truly experience Lent as a sacred time of drawing closer to God. Maybe it helps you focus on the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection and the sacrifice He made. Maybe Lent helps you to experience a deeper relationship with God. If Lent is like that for you, then go for it! Let God use whatever means He wants to bring you closer to Himself.
But if you are practicing Lent out of habit, or to make yourself feel right with God, or if you’re doing it out of obligation or guilt, or you find yourself thinking, “Oh great. That’s one MORE thing I should be doing” then RUN! Because “It is for freedom that Christ has set [you] free! Stand firm, then, and do not let [yourself] be burdened again by a yoke of slavery!” Be free.