by Pastor Jesse Johnson
A friend of mine was recently asked by a local youth pastor, “What’d you give up for Lent?” My friend quipped, “Lent.”
I can’t help but notice a growth in evangelicals who want to celebrate Lent by “giving something up.” I’ve heard of Christians giving up sugar, soda, Angry Birds, and Netflix (ok, I made up the last one—I’ve never heard of anyone giving up Netflix). For some evangelicals, apparently Lent is the new New Year’s. Those old resolutions were dropped by Feb 10, so time to dust them off and start over on March 1.
That is a bad idea. Here are a three reasons you should give up Lent for Lent:
1. Lent’s History
The idea of giving up something for Lent comes from a few factors—the growth of infant baptism, the increase of Roman Catholic traditions, and ever-changing Catholic approach to meat.
Allowing for some oversimplification, for the first few hundred years of church history baptism was generally practiced on what we now call Easter Sunday. Candidates for baptism would spend a period of preparation where they would fast, not shave, and in some cases not even bathe. While the exact length of this time varied (some say it was a few days, while other sources say 40 days), it would end at baptism, when the believer would be baptized, thus ending his fast.
In some churches, the entire congregation would join the fast (but not the no bathing part), as a form of spiritual preparation for baptism Sunday. With the legalization of Christianity and the Council of Nicaea, churches began to formalize their practices. What the Council requested is that church leaders fast for 40 days (calculated backwards from the Monday before Easter), to prepare to lead the church for Holy Week.
By the rise of Catholicism in the 400’s, infant baptism had replaced believer’s baptism, and the period that was now known as Lent lost its connection to baptism, and became focused on “fulfilling your fast” (Pope Leo’s phrase). This fast was allegedly modeled by the Apostles.
Once Lent became about fasting rather than baptism, the rules grew and changed. Finding spiritual significance to the number 40, Lent became 40 days, not counting Sundays. As the fast spread from church leaders to the laity, it was narrowed, and by the 600’s it was simply abstaining from meat, milk, and cheese for those 40 days (except on Sundays). By the Dark Ages, it had morphed into a fast of meat, but allowing one meal in the middle of the day to fall outside the exception (similar to how Muslims fast today). And, of course, by the modern era that exception went away, but fish was allowed.
This leads to the arbitrary nature of the Catholic approach to meat. The Catholic Church had developed a simultaneous tradition of fasting from meat on every Friday. Until the 1900’s it was even a mortal sin to eat meat on a Friday. But fish was exempted from this restriction.
Other exemptions popped up around the world—here is a story about Venezuelans eating capybara, for example. Canadians were allowed beaver (they lived in water, therefore a fish!), and no, I’m not making that up.
Finally, in the 1900’s, the fasts merged. Catholics (between 14-60 years old) are forbidden to eat meat on any Friday, but different parts of the world are allowed to replace that with other restrictions, and in the United States, that restriction has become Lent. So in the US, you can eat meat on Fridays year-round, as long as you give up meat for Lent.
It even gets more confusing than that. In the United States, Catholics can exchange the meat fast for something else. It becomes like a three-way NBA trade—in exchange for eating meat on Fridays year-round, you give up meat for Lent; so that you can eat meat for Lent, you give up (to chose an example a Catholic Priest actually said) your cell phone for Lent.
The result: giving up your cell phone for Lent fulfills both the Lenten requirement, and the Friday fasting requirements. Although I suppose that’s better than eating beaver.
It can also work negatively. Because one function of Lent is “penance,” in place of a fast you can force yourself to eat something you don’t like. If you don’t like Brussels sprouts, eating them during Lent is a form of Lenten penance. Instead of giving up Netflix for Lent, you could force yourself to watch Downton Abby—voila, a form of penance.
2. Lent’s Practicality
By practicality, I don’t mean “fasting is hard, so don’t do it.” I mean, “if your goal is spiritual preparation for Easter, giving up something is not going to get the job done.”
Look, I appreciate Advent. My family celebrates it every night for the weeks leading up to Christmas. I’m not opposed to the liturgical calendar. And I do think we should look forward to Easter in the same way we look forward to Christmas. I’m in favor of talking more about the resurrection, not less.
But the idea of “spiritual preparation” for Holy Week is anachronistic. The early church preparation was for baptism, not for a liturgical day. And the notion that giving up texting, or sugar, or meat, will make you spiritually prepared is bogus.
Self-control is important. Self-discipline is a mark of a believer. Your body works for you, you don’t work for your body. If you find that order reversed, then get serious about self-control and tell your body no. Do that now. Don’t wait until March 1.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline, because it reminds your body who works for whom. But to tie it to a liturgical calendar is misguided. If you are really excited about preparation for Easter, then do a Bible Study on resurrections for a month. Be disciplined in prayer, and be contrite about your sin. But don’t think that spiritual preparation is found in “fulfilling your fast.”
Remember that the Pharisees turned Jesus over to be crucified, but they did so without setting foot into the Governor’s house, so that they would not be defiled for their Passover. Ironic that the Catholic Church celebrates Lent to “spiritually prepare” for Easter, wherein they will celebrate a Mass in which Christ is re-sacrificed!
3. Lent’s Lack of Biblical Basis
The Catholic Church misses the mark big time in assuming the authority to tell people what they can/cannot eat, and when they can and cannot eat it. Real sanctification is seen in what comes out of a person’s heart, not what goes into a person’s mouth (Matthew 15:11).
When Jesus declared that, the disciples interrupted him and said, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (vs 12).
As it should be! Religious leaders of works-based systems get offended when it’s pointed out to them that controlling what people eat—as if it had any bearing on sanctification at all—is a sign of false religion, not truth!
The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples didn’t do the ceremonial washings, and Jesus said, “you hypocrites!” He went on:
This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (Mark 7:6-9).
This is why for the rest of the New Testament, connecting spiritual growth to abstaining from foods corresponds to the spiritually immature, not to the mature (and certainly not to the “apostolic model” as the Catholic Church claims). “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8). If your conscience is defiled by food, then it is a sure-fire sign that it is spiritually “weak” (1 Corinthians 8:7).
If you give up something for Lent as some form of spiritual perpetration for Easter, let me give you this challenge. Read this passage:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:20-23).
Now, ask yourself, in light of this passage, does giving up sugar (or whatever) for Lent highlight your connection to Christ, or to “self-made religion”? Either you are giving up something significant, or something minor. If it is a significant fast, then it is “severity to the body,” which is something Paul particularly says “has no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” If it is something minor, then there is little reward, and only a latent connection to the sacerdotal system of Rome.
A reminder: “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled (Titus 1:15).