As of this past Wednesday, Lent is upon us. Lots of my friends, Catholic and Protestant, are observing it in different ways, usually by giving something up. Maybe you’re one of them.
Some of them, though, are not sure why.
A friend emailed me the other day about this exact question. She mentioned that she usually gives up TV, food, or shopping, but that it’s never really helped her feel closer to Jesus. And, that her sacrifice feels kind of trite in comparison to the price Jesus paid.
Can you identify?
What is Lent, anyway?
Before we take a swing at those questions, let’s make sure we’re on the same page and understand what Lent actually is.
Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter, with the exception of Sundays. It’s typically a time where people give something up to express their devotion to God, or, recommit to loving him more.
Those are both good motives. God wants us to show our love for him, and, we can always love him more.
On the flip side, though, Lent presents a hidden danger. The truth is that we can’t earn favor with God. But when we give up something we love, we can start to feel like we’re a little better than someone who doesn’t. That we’ve earned some favor with God. Even though I ‘know’ this is wrong, I do it all the time.
Which misses the entire point of Lent – and, life. 1 John 4:10 says it best: ‘This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins’. Although there’s nothing we can do to be good enough for God, the great news is that he did it for us. All we have to do is trust what Christ did on our behalf.
So Lent gives us an opportunity to reflect on the depth of our spiritual need, the way Jesus met it on the cross, and, the wonder of the new life he brings through his resurrection.
Do I have to?!
So, do you have to observe Lent? Well, it depends on what you mean.
There’s no biblical command to observe Lent by fasting or giving something up.
But, everywhere Scripture calls us us to remember who God is and what He’s done. Psalm 77:11 is typical: ‘remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old’. Jesus’s death and resurrection are the single-most important events in all of human history, so they ought to shape our thinking. The season of Lent, which recalls them, is a great opportunity for us to do exactly that.
Yeah, but what about fasting and giving stuff up?!
Right, you wanted to know about fasting and giving things up. Do you really have to?
In a word, no. There’s no biblical commandment to give something up for Lent, or, to fast during this time.
But – you knew this was coming – it’s not quite that simple. (Jesus has a way of neither guilting us, nor letting us rest easy without serious self-reflection).
Jesus doesn’t require fasting, or giving things up, during Lent, but he does require fasting. There it is in Matthew 6:16: ‘And when you fast…’ He doesn’t tell us when to fast, but he does assume we’ll do it. (Darn it).
And we can’t just say it was specific to the disciples of Jesus’s day, either. It’s part of a larger passage where he talks about ‘when you give’ (Matthew 16:2) and ‘when you pray’ (16:6), things that are clearly part of our calling as Christians today.
So we don’t have to fast or give things up for Lent, but we do have to fast. I’d say that extends way beyond food to other things, too. It’s just part of being a follower of Jesus, who gave up everything for us. We have to work out the frequency and details with God, but Jesus assumes it’s good for us.
Why, then, would we want to take a ‘how little can I get away with’ approach?
Suggestions For Giving Things Up During Lent (Or Anytime)
Alright, so let’s bring this in for a landing and make it practical. Just to be clear, these are suggestions.
I found John Piper’s short (5:24) audio clip on fasting to be super-helpful here. He says that fasting – or giving something up – has two main purposes.
First, fasting is meant to create in us a longing for Christ. Matthew 9:14-15 clearly points this out:
14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
So the physical hunger we experience when we fast should remind us of our deep need for Christ and stimulate a passionate desire for his return, when hunger will end forever.
Second, Piper says, when we fast or give things up, it exposes our hidden sin. Stuff that’s always been there, but covered up when we’re full or medicated by whatever else we’re now giving up. For example, I fast one meal a week and it’s definitely a time where I’m tempted to be cranky and less patient! But without food, things bubble to the surface where I can deal with them and grow. Praise God.
Bringing It All Together
So, should you give something up for Lent?
Here’s my best attempt to boil it down into a bottom-line:
You have complete freedom to, or not to. Either way, you should work it out with God and know why you’re participating, or, not. Regardless of what you choose, cultivating a greater, real-time awareness both of our brokenness, and what Jesus did to restore us, is something we can build into our lives as we await for his return. Lent is one great opportunity for us to embrace these things at a whole new level.
Question: Are you giving something up for Lent this year? Why or why not?