Typically, evangelicals are shy about Lent. The 40 days prior to Easter—Sundays excepted—are known popularly as a season for giving up chocolate or other extras in order to show God how much we love him. With such impoverished notions, it is no wonder that Lent has fallen on hard times.
So should evangelicals bother with Lent?
Whatever the popular conceptions, the season can encourage gospel-centered piety. But, before considering Lent's value, let's briefly discuss the benefits of the church calendar, in general.
Some evangelical traditions reject the notion of the church calendar wholesale, believing that the Lord's Day is the only God-given measure of time for the church. Some Puritans discarded all special holidays on this principle. But, no matter our efforts, we organize our lives according to some seasonal calendar that's not prescribed by God (semesters, financial quarters, and months, for example).
Recognizing this, the church's liturgical calendar seeks to order time around the major events of our redemption in Christ. During these seasons, we encourage certain theological emphases, spiritual practices, and corresponding emotions to instruct and train the church in godliness. Of course, the calendar does not limit the celebration of a truth or the experience of a particular emotion to one season or day. For instance, observing Easter Sunday as a joyous and festive holy day does not deny that every Lord's Day celebrates Jesus' resurrection. Rather, a joyous Easter Sunday anchors and gives shape to all other Sundays throughout the year. So it is with the liturgical calendar.
That said, let's explore five benefits to observing Lent.
1. Lent affords us the opportunity to search the depths of our sin and experience the heights of God's love. With Good Friday approaching, visions of Jesus' gruesome death remind us of the dreadful reality of sin. Here, our individual and corporate brokenness is on display as the Lord of glory dies under the weight of our just judgment, inspiring personal introspection. Though self-examination can turn into narcissistic navel gazing, such abuses should not foreclose on a godly form of self-examination that encourages humility, repentance, and dependence on Christ.
But for such introspection to remain healthy, we must hold together two realities that converge at the cross—our corruption and God's grace. If we divorce the two, then our hearts will either swell with pride and self-righteousness, losing touch with our sinfulness, or sink into anxious despair and uncertainty, failing to grapple with mercy.
Confident of God's grace in Jesus Christ, we are free to probe the inner recesses of our hearts, unearthing sin's pollution. God's grace liberates us to explore our soul, facing its filth, rather than suppressing or succumbing to its contents. With David, we are free to pray,
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:23-24)
Searching us, God discovers nothing unknown to him (Ps 139:1-3), but discloses the secrets of our hearts, allowing us to know ourselves. Under his tender scrutiny, God exposes, not to shame, but to heal. Thus, turning inward, we are led upward to find consolation, hope, and transformation through Jesus Christ. Certainly, such piety isn't the exclusive property of any church season, but Lent provides a unique setting for this self-examination.
2. Lent affords us an opportunity to probe the sincerity of our discipleship. Jesus bore the cross for us, accomplishing our salvation, yet he also bestows a cross on us (Mt. 10:38-39; Lk. 9:23). Following him, Jesus guarantees unspeakable comforts and uncertainties (Jn. 16:32-33). Frequently, these uncertainties test the genuineness of our discipleship. Consider the following examples from Jesus' ministry.
In Matthew 8:18-22, two people approach Jesus, proclaiming their desire to follow him. One, a scribe, offers his undying devotion saying, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds by instructing the scribe about the rigors of following him, explaining that foxes and birds enjoy more comfort than he does. Perceiving selfish ambition, Jesus reminds the scribe that following him is not a means for advancing in the world, but rather involves forsaking it. We don't know how this scribe responded to the challenge, but Jesus leaves us with the question, “Will we follow him when it is inconvenient or only when comfortable and to our advantage?”
The second, a disciple, requests to attend his father's funeral before going on with Jesus. Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal the disciple's heart, unveiling his ultimate affections. He says, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Remember, Jesus warns us that we cannot love father and mother, or anything else, above him (Mt. 10:37). Obviously, Jesus does not forbid loving our parents or attending their funerals, but he does insist on being first in our hearts. Jesus is not a commitment among other commitments, but rather the commitment of our lives. Therefore, as Augustine points out, we must take care to order our loves properly, ensuring that our affections are set on Christ and not another.
In this way, Lent provides opportunity to question and examine ourselves, exploring the integrity of our discipleship.
3. Lent provides us an opportunity to reflect on our mortality. Pursuing eternal youth, our culture seems to live in the denial of death. But ignoring death does not erase its impartiality—everyone who draws a first breath will take a last one. It is a certainty we can't escape (Heb. 9:27). Fortunately, death is not the last word. For all who belong to Christ, there is a promise stronger than death—we will die, but Jesus will return to raise our bodies, wiping the tears from our eyes and making all things new (1 Cor. 15:12-28; Rev. 21:1-8).
The most difficult moment I face each year, as an Anglican pastor, is to apply the ashes, in the sign of a cross, to the foreheads of my wife and children on Ash Wednesday. It is an intimate and haunting moment. Echoing the words of Genesis 3:19, I say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is jarring. Every year, I cry.
Yet the ashes are applied in the shape of Jesus' cross—the only means for escaping the dust of death. When God raised Jesus, he raided death, destroying its power. Jesus' resurrection marks the death of death and welcomes us into a living hope (1 Pt. 1:3). This is our consolation and joy in the midst of our mortality.
Lent provides an unmistakable opportunity for disciplined reflection on this neglected certainty and God's radical solution.
4. Lent gives us the opportunity to move towards our neighbor in charity. Long misunderstood as a form of works-righteousness, Lenten fasting is not about scoring points with God, but rather emphasizes simplicity for the sake of others. By temporarily carving away some comforts or conveniences, good gifts from God himself, we hope to de-clutter our hectic lives, allowing us to focus. Simple living allows us to reserve time for others while also serving to curb our expenses. It is fitting to allocate these savings, along with other gifts, for charitable purposes, especially directing those funds to the poor and marginalized.
So search your heart and go simple. Consider fasting from types of food, technology, and/or sources of entertainment. Live frugally, and do so for the sake of charity. Find a cause, or better yet a person, and give sacrificially. And, in so doing, may you know the joy of Jesus who gave himself fully to us.
5. Lent prepares us to celebrate the wonder and promise of Jesus' resurrection on Easter Sunday. Here, Jesus trampled down sin and death, defeating the Devil (Heb. 2:14-15). After a season of depravation, highlighting the grim reality of our broken creation, Jesus' resurrection floods our grief with life and light. In other words, Lent prepares us to join the disciples in their joy and bewilderment on that strange morning long ago (Mt. 28:8; Mk. 16:8; Lk. 24:12). Our Easter worship is a dress rehearsal for our Lord Jesus' return when he comes to unite heaven and earth, making all things new (Eph. 1:10; Rev. 21:1-8).
And so, I invite you to a holy Lent. Take up the opportunity to dwell upon the grief of our broken world, the sin within your heart, and the deep love of God that exceeds these realities. Reflecting on the hospitality of God, consider the needs of your neighbor, especially those without life's basic needs. And, most importantly, in the gritty details of Lent, don't forget—Easter is coming!