By: Scott Armstrong
The season of Lent begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar, Lent is meant to be a time of self-denial and repentance. Many Christians worldwide observe this period by “giving up” or “fasting” something for the 40 days preceding Easter. I have lived and served for many years in Latin America, where this practice seems perplexing – or even offensive – for many Evangelical Christians. Let’s give a little bit of background on how this practice developed.
The observance of Lent goes back to the early days of the Church. Becoming a Christian was rightly seen as a big deal, so new converts spent years in intense study and preparation before their baptism. The most common day to be baptized in the early Church was Easter, and the 40 days before “Resurrection Sunday” served as the final period of purification and enlightenment. The rest of the Church gradually began to observe the season of Lent in order to accompany those newest Christians. Lent became an opportunity for all Christians to recall and renew the commitment to their own baptism.
Writer and former missionary Neela Kale writes: “Today we know Lent as a season of conversion: we acknowledge the ways we have turned away from God in our lives, and we focus on turning our hearts and minds back toward God. Hence the three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These observances help us turn away from whatever has distracted or derailed us and to turn back to God. Giving up something for Lent is ultimately a form of fasting. We can deprive ourselves of some small pleasure or indulgence and offer that sacrifice up to God.”
As a child, my parents urged us to give something up during Lent, and I have kept the practice every year since. One year I gave up soda, another TV. I have given up dessert, meat, and social media. Perhaps our family’s most memorable sacrifice was giving up our car and using public transportation one year in Costa Rica. And the toughest year was probably when I felt led to give up complaining – I learned a lot about myself and my whiny nature during those 40 days of refusing to be critical of anyone or any circumstance!
Some naysayers might scoff. “These little acts of denial are insignificant compared to the great discipline it takes to be a follower of Christ. In fact, merely giving up chocolate for 40 days trivializes the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross!” It’s a good reminder: we certainly do not want to compare “no tv” to the brutalized and lifeless body of our Lord at Golgotha. At the same time, Kale asserts: “An experience of want, however temporary, can help us to appreciate the true abundance in our lives. And a small change can have a big impact that lasts beyond the 40 days of Lent.”
So what will you give up for Lent this year? Will these weeks be just like any other in 2021? Or will you deny yourself something big or small in order to turn toward God in this season of fasting and repentance? I pray that the next 40 days would be a time of deep spiritual significance for all of us.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Mt. 16:24).