Lent has never been part of my personal Christian experience but as a missionary envoy of the Bible Fellowship Church serving in Guadeloupe, West Indies, I have had plenty of opportunity to see it in its more extreme forms. Lent, as it is observed here in America, is mild by comparison. For most people, it is simply a matter of giving up something enjoyable: chocolate, morning coffee, or video games. They don’t know exactly why, but they feel that in some way this must be pleasing to God.
As a denomination, the Bible Fellowship Church neither endorses nor observes Lent. Our Anabaptist forebears left the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century because they believed that the plain teaching of Scripture had been overwhelmed by the accumulation of manmade dogmas and traditions. They resolved to set aside any doctrine or practice that is not clearly prescribed in the Bible. Though they had a high regard for the disciplines that Lent claimed to promote – prayer, simplicity, self-denial, and acts of charity – they found no Biblical justification for embedding these virtues in a six and a half week fast preceding Easter. They preached that wholehearted and loving devotion to Christ should characterize the Christian’s entire life. What’s more, they believed that the accompanying fasts, pilgrimages, and selfmortifications of Lent cast a shadow on the unique value of Christ’s atonement. They deplored how the Roman church abused these to exploit the credulity of the Christian masses. They therefore rejected it.
Guadeloupe and Lent
The people of Guadeloupe where I served are not of European ancestry and they have little awareness of the Reformation. Guadeloupe is a predominately Catholic country where Carnival with all of its debauchery reigns from Epiphany on January 6 to Mardi Gras – the day before Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, Vaval, the King of Carnival, is burned in effigy and people begin the six weeks of penitence called “Carême,” which is French for Lent. In their minds, the privations of Lent are what you owe God for indulging the excesses of Carnival. Most people consider it a fair trade. Lent atones for Carnival and the Catholic Church winks at it all.
“You’ve indulged your carnal passions with all your might,” the priest will say in the Ash Wednesday Mass. Now you must stifle them just as energetically.” For the next six weeks, churches are filled to overflowing. Candles are lit. Prayers are said. Alms are given. The third Thursday of Lent is Mi-Carême, a day during which, with the implicit indulgence of the Catholic Church, the restrictions of Lent are lifted and Carnival returns for one last fling. Then on Good Friday, the last day of Lent, multitudes of pilgrims reenact Jesus’ trial and crucifixion at various holy sites representing the Via Dolorosa – the Way of the Cross. When people learn the true Gospel and genuinely turn to Christ, they reject Carnival and its depravities. In Christ, they are new creatures with new hearts. The annual acts of penance involved in Lent no longer make sense. Christ has made atonement for them and they have been reconciled to God once for all. The old is done away. Look! All things have been made new! (2 Corinthians 5.17).
Tradition in America
Here in America, on the other hand, there is a growing interest in Lent in churches that have no history of the tradition. Perhaps this is because its proponents claim that it offers a path to a more disciplined life and a deeper relationship with God. Or perhaps it is because those churches have forgotten why their spiritual forefathers rejected it in the first place. I came across a writer who describes their emerging fascination with Lent as “their new ancient tradition.” He is correct: Lent is ancient, possibly going as far back as the 2nd century. But he is also correct in calling it a “tradition.” We have the Lord’s clear instructions on Baptism (Matthew 28:19) and the celebration of His Table (Luke 22.19). These are ordinances. But there is no command to celebrate the 40 days of Lent. This is a tradition. What’s more, it is a tradition that lends support to a number of distortions and that is why we do not endorse it. Let me mention a few of those misrepresentations.
The popular understanding of Lent introduces the notion that we can bargain with God: “I’ll give up this if you’ll give me that.” It trivializes devotion by suggesting that God is pleased by the giving up of certain personal pleasures of our own choosing for a season: morning coffee, chocolate, ice cream, you name it. Doesn’t this create the impression of a God who disapproves of whatever we enjoy? Are devotion and pleasure mutually exclusive?
Some people will say that these “sacrifices” are not so much about pleasing God as they are about disciplining ourselves – “flexing our spiritual muscles.” But the things that God does tell us to put away: falsehood, bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and malice, to name a few (Ephesians 4:25- 31), require far more “spiritual muscle” than giving up jelly donuts.
Going Deeper as a Lifestyle
Many writers speak of “preparing our hearts and minds for the crucifixion,” or of “joining Jesus on the way to the cross.” Expressions like these imply that, in some way, we partake in Jesus’ atoning work, either by preparing to receive it or by actually participating in it anew each year. This obscures the fact that Christ’s death, and His death alone, has atoned for our sin and procured our salvation once for all. (Romans 6:9-10; Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10).
To express thoughtful gratitude for Christ’s atoning sacrifice, to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age as we wait for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:12–13). These spiritual exercises are not seasonal aspirations. To go deeper with God is not a “Lent.” It is a lifestyle.