As we have just embarked on the lenten season, many of my Christian friends – both Anglican and Free Church alike – have dutifully set about giving things up for 40 days. Some, conspicuous by their absence on social media, have given up squinting all day at a computer screen. Others, in more traditional form, have given up sweet treats and the like. A handful may be going for the full-throttle 40 day fast. Some are doing such things in order to give themselves over to prayer, others because they think they’re engaged in an inherently valuable spiritual discipline apart from prayer, whilst others participate simply to lose weight or getting round to writing that book they were working on. The reasons are plethora and the motives often mixed.
Reformed Baptist and Independent low-church Dissenters tend not to emphasise the church calendar so much. Sure, we are happy enough with Christmas and Easter services and we might well do a thing at Harvest or Mothering Sunday but these are normally guided by missional or pastoral concerns. I am all for having Christmas services if, as in most parts of the UK, you find this is still a time when unbelievers may simply wander into the church. Almost no other time of the year can we expect that to happen as the norm any longer and we are foolish to ignore the evangelistic opportunity afforded to us culturally. But it is fair to say, if that cultural evangelistic opportunity was lost a few years hence, I would not lose any sleep over dropping the traditional Christmas service. The church is not the servant of the church calendar, rather the church calendar is there to be used if and when it serves the work of the church.
Which brings me to Lent. Most Anglicans I know are certainly doing it and a good number of non-Anglicans seem to be going at it too. I am certainly not of the view that it is wrong to join in lenten practices and, if you have chosen to do so, then I wish you well in your efforts. Nevertheless, I want to offer several reasons why I don’t follow Lent and why it perhaps oughtn’t to take a central place in the life of the church.
It’s not commanded in scripture
Above all else, you will not find the season of Lent nor any of its practices commanded in scripture. Though I recognise the arguments in favour that focus upon the example of Christ, example is always a tricky guide. Yes, we are to imitate Christ but it is apparent there are things we don’t copy exactly e.g. riding into town on a Donkey, growing up learning carpentry, teaching in the authoritative way he did from the scriptures “You’ve heard it said… I tell you the truth…”, etc. We may look to Christ’s example when he went into the desert for 40 days but it is fair to say such was not commanded of his followers and you’d be hard pressed to find any reference to the Apostles following that example in that way themselves.
Now, this is not an argument against doing it. Certainly scripture doesn’t forbid Lent. It is just an argument against insisting upon it, demanding others do it or viewing yourself as more spiritual for it. If Christ had wanted to insist we follow Lent, or fast for 40 days, he could have made that plain enough. Had the Apostles heard him teach that it would almost certainly be recorded somewhere in the NT writings. That it isn’t suggests it is something that should not be demanded and is certainly not significant for our spiritual growth and holiness.
Jesus taught there was no inherent value in fasting
In Matthew 9, Jesus is asked by the disciples of John why his followers do not fast like they do. Jesus’ answers by saying “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.” This answer tells us that fasting has to do with mourning. Usually, it was linked to mourning over sin and was an act signifying repentance, and this is consistent with the OT. Jesus goes on to talk about new wine in old wineskins and the context of this comment comes in Matthew 9:13 where Jesus quotes Hosea saying “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Taken together, Jesus is saying the old outward forms of religion no longer hold now he is here. The new covenant simply cannot be lived out under the old stipulations of the Jewish laws and customs. In other words, fasting is of no inherent value. It is only the response to Jesus Christ himself that is of any great spiritual importance.
The answer usually thrown back to this interpretation is that Jesus clearly says in 9:15 “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” This means fasting is demanded but will only be in force once Jesus has gone away from them. John Piper has made this argument here. As a slight push-back to that, I would point to Jesus’ own words at the end of Matthew’s gospel in which he says “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Now, if it is inappropriate to be fasting and mourning when the bridegroom is present, if he is with us always to the end of the age fasting and mourning doesn’t seem to fit the picture.
Piper argues that the NT church fasted but at least two of the references he offers most certainly do not relate to any spiritual discipline but rather to Paul finding himself in situations without food. The two Corinthian references are better understood as hunger or even starving not as fasting as context makes clear. The two references in Acts that he offers do suggest fasting in the sense Piper intends but it is difficult to ascertain whether this was still part of the culturally bound Jewish makeup of those fasting. This is not unlike some of the things determined as relevant by the Jerusalem Council in Acts but that are nevertheless overturned as important when Paul is dealing with Gentile churches (eg. Acts 15:20). Again, that is not to say the fast was wrong but is very possibly a cultural hangover of those fasting. Certainly in none of Paul’s letters to the Gentile churches is fasting demanded or expected.
Piper’s other argument about the Bridegroom being a reference to Jesus’ second coming is stronger. However, we are dealing here with the Almost-But-Not-Yet theme that runs throughout the NT and is particularly prevalent in the Pauline literature. It is perfectly credible for Jesus to refer to the Bridegroom as being with the disciples, later refer to the Bridegroom coming at the second coming, and also to maintain that he is with the disciples until the end of the age. Christ is with us now, by his unity with the Spirit, but he will also be with us in a fuller way when he returns. If he is with his disciples always until the end of the age, it makes most sense to view the time when Jesus says his disciples will fast as the three days between his death and resurrection prior to the receipt of the Spirit. To load onto Jesus’ parable of the Bridegroom the idea that fasting is demanded in the NT church is to stretch the words of Jesus in Matthew 9 and Matthew 28. It is also to turn the context of Matthew 9, which is clearly dismissing the nature of outward forms of piety, to effectively mean the opposite. Moreover, it doesn’t make any sense in light to Paul’s fuller and franker discussion of asceticism in Romans and Colossians. Nor does it do anything to address the fact that fasting simply doesn’t seem to be a relevant thing for the Gentile churches. Not only is fasting hardly mentioned in the New Testament at all, Jesus appears to say it is of no inherent value and there is no emphasis on it in the NT letters.
It is a poor way to deal with idols
If something is getting in the way of my relationship with Christ, I am not convinced that waiting for the allotted 40 day period in the church calendar is a sound approach to dealing with the problem. My eating habits, or my social media time, or my use of TV, or whatever it is that I might give up for lent doesn’t bear waiting for if it is stopping me communing with Christ and his people. Does it not make more sense to address sin, to improve our prayer life, increase our time in the Bible when the Lord makes that need clear to us rather than waiting and being prompted into doing it because it is the appropriate time of year to think about such things?
I suspect most Lenten advocates would give a hearty amen to that. The question I would have is what is the point of giving up those things apart from those reasons? If facebook, films or food are not in any way hindering your walk with Christ why on earth would you feel the need to sacrifice them? Why give them up if they in no way hinder your spiritual walk? I am prepared to hear other options but I can only imagine it is because we think there is inherent value, or it is a solid spiritual discipline, to simply give things up for its own sake. If that is your answer, I would refer you back to my previous section. That is old fashioned asceticism dressed up as spirituality. There is nothing inherently good about giving stuff up. The only reason to give something up is if it is hindering your walk with Christ and, if that is the case, picking it back up again after 40 days seems foolish at best. If that is not the case, why on earth bother giving up what is a good gift from God that is in no way hindering your walk with him?
It can promote roller-coaster Christianity
Once again, this is not a definitive argument against Lent; it is a wisdom issue. This particular argument is by no means the final word on this but it is one of the wisdom reasons I tend not to emphasise Lent.
In my experience, two main types of people emphasise Lent: (1) church traditionalists; (2) experientialists. There are those who do it because that is what the church they’ve been part of has always done. There are others who emphasise Lent because they believe it is inherently beneficial to them as believers. In either case, it can tend to inculcate this roller-coaster experience of the Christian life. When the calendar places demands upon us to behave in certain ways, or to engage in certain disciplines, we almost see it as building us up and improving our spiritual experiences. It almost becomes the very act of self-sacrifice – regardless of what it is we’re sacrificing and why we’re doing it – that we see as somehow to our good.
But the repeated claims of Paul in Galatians, Colossians and parts of Philippians is that we need nothing other than Christ for spiritual fulfilment. We do not need special spiritual experiences, or to keep particular rules and disciplines, in order to find total spiritual fulfilment. Christ is all sufficient. Our joy comes from knowing Christ, our spiritual fulfilment comes from knowing Christ, our maturity comes through knowing Christ. It by being in relationship with Jesus, and knowing him through his word, that we become spiritually mature and fulfilled. Anything apart from that – no matter how it is spiritually dressed up or how often it appears in church tradition – is not required for us to live lives pleasing to God and for us to find complete spiritual fulfilment in Christ.
It emphasises the infrequent rather than the normal disciplines of Christian living
As argued helpfully in the first 9Marks mailbag, the Christian life is one of ongoing discipline and obedience. It is a weekly routine of feeding on God’s word with God’s people and a continual giving ourselves over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Lent can detract from this ongoing walk of discipleship. It tends to point us to particular times where we especially seek to walk closely with God rather than, as the Bible demands, helping us to especially seek to walk closely with God at all times. The church is typically called to emphasise the weekly not the annual.
As put really nicely at 9Marks:
in our overnight-delivery, adrenaline-addicted, movie-theater-tears era, I think we’re all particularly susceptible to go searching for the mountaintop experience with the Lord. And the danger of these moments is that they can convince us we have made real progress in the faith when we haven’t. Real progress is a change of heart, which leads to new habits and quotidian consistencies in the hands and feet through the tick-tick-tick of hours, days, months, and years.
In other words, we don’t want Christians who know how to be generous just at Christmas or live self-sacrificially just at Lent, but who practice generosity and self-sacrifice as a daily normal. We’re trying to cultivate a new culture, not sponsor exciting events.
To be sure, Old Testament Jews celebrated three annual festivals, together with the weekly Sabbath. However, you don’t find anything like this established in the New Testament church. In fact, the annual Passover gives way to the (weekly?) Lord’s Supper. And in general, Acts and the Epistles emphasize the weekly gathering.
What’s more, the first Christians decided to gather on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2) instead of on the Sabbath. They called it the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) because Jesus got up from the dead on that day. Every Sunday, in other words, is Easter Sunday! We need the reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection weekly, not annually.
So, here are five reasons why I don’t push Lent. I want to emphasise again, this is a wisdom issue on which we have freedom. The Bible nowhere says Lent or fasting in general is wrong. Clearly, as Christ did it, we are permitted to do it too. So if you want to take part in Lent, or you find the practice of fasting spiritually beneficial to you, the Bible is OK with that and, inasmuch as you want or need it, you can have my blessing.
But for me, I think there is no demand on us to do it and I don’t think fasting is always as helpful a thing as many claim. I think there is a lot of bad theology floating round on this topic on both sides of the argument. I would always want to come back to the fact that it is not demanded of us in the Bible and the NT emphasis is repeatedly on the sufficiency of Christ – and knowing him in personal relationship through the scriptures – than it is on works, disciplines or any number of other things.