Lent: Glitter or Gold?

Every Sunday night before evening worship I meet in my study with the middle schoolers in our church to discuss the morning sermon. That goal isn’t always achieved. As I’ve gotten to know them they have also gotten to know me. Sometimes they use that to their advantage to derail the normal topic of discussion. They have figured out that the quickest way to have a tangential conversation is to ask me a serious question. I’ve never told them—and maybe I don’t need to—but these are some of my favorite times as a pastor. In one manipulatively planned digression I was asked about the practice of Lent.

Over a century ago William Ingraham Kip wrote: “For some years past each return of Lent has been, we believe, regarded with additional interest.” That observation remains true today. As Ash Wednesday marks the start of another Lenten season many of us will encounter it. In the spirit of the Apostle Paul who said “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) we should think biblically about the Lenten season.

Lent is regarded by many to be on of the oldest and most important practices of the church calendar. Traces of its observance can be found in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 202), Tertullian (d. 240), and the Council of Nicea (325). Through the centuries different rules, ceremonies, rites, and liturgies have left Lent without a unified expression individually and corporately. Nevertheless, for many, the Lenten season is a time of preparation for Easter and growing closer to God through fasting, self-denial, and repentance.

With such an ambitious purpose some might wonder if there’s room to question its usefulness. Paul reminds us, however, that not all that glitters is gold. There are “spiritual disciplines” that can be bad for you! He told Timothy that it is possible to have the appearance of godliness but actually deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). He also cautioned against submitting to regulations such as “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” which are according to human precepts and teachings because though they had the appearance of wisdom “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). We need to be careful. Just because someone wants something to promote a good and godly end doesn’t mean it will. So, does Lent have the appearance without the power; the glitter without the gold?

First, we should remember that there’s no biblical requirement for observing a Lenten season. Far different from the religious days many have imposed on the calendar, God has permanently set the rhythm of our life according to his calendar: “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9-10). That’s how it has been from creation and how it will continue to be until Jesus—who is the Lord of the Sabbath—returns (see Genesis 2:3 and Hebrews 4:9). Under the Old Testament there were all kinds of ceremonial days added to the Jewish calendar. But these days had no permanence and, according to the work of Jesus, are things we’ve been set free from (see Colossians 2:16-17). The only “holy day” the New Testament knows is the weekly “Lord’s Day” (see Revelation 1:10). There’s nothing special or sacred about the forty days of Lent. That means that whatever Lent might promise (if it does) it cannot offer something unique or different than what we get every Lord’s Day when we gather for the ministry of Word and sacrament.

Second, in the Lenten season people commit to giving up certain types of luxuries in the promotion of piety. In the Roman Catholic Church this is a form of penance. Penance in the Catholic tradition is a sacrament whereby a baptized person makes satisfaction for sin. According to this teaching, after confession of sin you still need to “do something more to make amends for sin.” This includes activities like prayer, giving an offering, works of mercy, or voluntary self denial. In making satisfaction one can regain grace and justice and obtain forgiveness through the Church. One can easily see the connection between Lent and penance. Let me suggest, however, that this view of penance is far from biblical repentance and seeks to add to the perfect satisfaction of Jesus Christ. While many evangelicals who observe Lent wouldn’t claim to do it in the context of this sacramentalism, the very practice of unnecessarily abstaining from certain luxuries promotes a cheap repentance and a confidence in the flesh. It reinforces that Pharisaical attitude Jesus rejected: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Sin is a problem with the heart and that’s why we need the resources of the Spirit. Paul asked the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). These self-imposed rules will not bring one closer to God and further from sin: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do eat” (1 Corinthians 8:8).

Third, while fasting is a biblical discipline both individually (Matthew 6:16) and corporately (Joel 2:12), the Bible gives stern warnings against false fasting which is a false piety. The Prophet Isaiah rebuked: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 53:4-4). Likewise Jesus warned: “When you do fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). Biblical fasting is to the end of promoting humility, repentance, mercy, and prayer. Without these corresponding graces a fast is nothing but the worst kind of hypocrisy. The fashionable and culturally savvy Lenten season seems, at least to me, to promote an atmosphere for such hypocrisy to thrive in. John Calvin rightly wrote: “It would have been much better to have had no fasting at all, than have it carefully observed, but at the same time corrupted by false and pernicious opinions.”

I know that Lent means a lot to many Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists and is a significant part of their traditions. But, as I look at the Bible and the true nature of Christian liberty, repentance, and fasting I’m not convinced that the Lenten season actually encourages those things–I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m Presbyterian! It certainly has the appearance, but lacks the power; it has the glitter, but it’s not the gold. Even if you disagree with me (and I’ll happily give you that liberty) I hope that you can take some encouragement: put no confidence in the flesh but only in Jesus, rend your heart and not your garments, add to your profession of faith every grace of the Spirit, and take the path of daily self-denial which is identification with Jesus Christ and the promotion of his glory. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

6 Comments

  1. Pete March 1, 2017 at 10:27 am #

    Kyle, I appreciate your article. I appreciate you giving room for individual practice in this regards, which is quite different from the imposition of a practice by the Church. You infer that Presbyterians don’t observe Lent. And I would have agreed with you, except that I have met a number of folks in a close sister denomination that do observe Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas. It’s becoming tradition in many Presbyterian Churches, too.

    • Kyle Borg March 1, 2017 at 10:53 am #

      Pete,
      I agree many contemporary Presbyterians do. I guess that was more historical reference. Presbyterians don’t have a Lenten heritage or tradition. If they are keeping it they’re borrowing it from someone else.

      Blessings,
      Kyle

  2. Katherine March 5, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

    Thank you, Kyle. Do you think, though, that perhaps the Reformed tradition over-emphasises the cerebral and has a comparatively flimsy theology of the body? Most exhortations from Reformed teachers are things that the believer does inside his / her own head. And yet we have bodies too, and they’re not just transport for our brains. Your young people are surrounded by peers who want their bodies to be part of their emotional and ‘spiritual’ life, which I think is why they’re covering themselves with tattoos etc… And although you highlighted warnings against the abuse of fasting, does that excise the positive teaching on fasting from the NT? Do you also tell them not to bother kneeling when they pray? Just wondering…
    I have some more theological reasons for occasionally denying myself something, but one result is: gratitude! After a missed meal (say), how wonderful is the next one! How kind of God to make these things taste so good! And the other is a sobering realisation of my own weakness, how much I rely on my comfortable props.

    • Kyle Borg March 5, 2017 at 8:34 pm #

      Hi Katherine!

      Thanks for stopping by!

      I sympathize with what you’re saying, but I don’t think an over-emphasis on the cerebral (or I’ll call it the spiritual) is restricted to the Reformed tradition or even inherent in its theology. For instance, the Heidelberg Catechism in the very first question teaches that we belong both “body and soul” to our faithful Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, at least for me, it’s been Reformed writers like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Herman Bavinck who have helped me develop my understanding of the body. Most memorable was a book by Herman Witsius that spoke of posture in prayer and has led me to never again say “Let’s prepare our hearts for worship,” as if the body doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, to be critical of my own tradition, I think the way Reformed theology often expresses itself in teaching and preaching lends itself to a more intellectually centered view of man. And that’s too bad!

      That being said, I didn’t intend to go against a biblical understanding of fasting. I just don’t think Lent actually provides a biblical framework for fasting–at least not as it has come to find expression in the rites, ceremonies, and liturgies of Roman Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy. But, again, I guess that’s why I’m Presbyterian 😉

      All the best!

      • Katherine March 6, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

        Thank you, Brad. As a bookish and introverted sort of person I was always very comfortable with the cerebral emphasis in the Reformed scene, in which I was raised. In the last few years, though, I’ve wondered if it is an emphasis which allows me to live an impressive Christian life securely within the four walls of my own imagination. Might be just me. I notice that Touchstone currently has an article by Allen Carlson (I think) which mentions Gnostic elements in Protestantism, in a different context (family and children), which I thought interesting… Thank you for your irenic approach in representing Reformed Christianity 🙂

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