Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Obsession with Lent

I usually don't think too much about Lent. However, with my good Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, we never forget Fauschnaut Day here in Pa. Two things got me thinking about Lent this year.

First, Wednesday morning on my Facebook page someone posted the following redacted conversation:
Person 1: "What are you giving up for Lent?"
Person 2: "The Church Calendar."
The friend is going to a strong Protestant and Presbyeterian seminary. The quote made me chuckle because we're Protestant and therefore not strongly liturgical. This was the first thing that made me think about Lent and made me say to myself: "well, yeah, we're Protestant."

Second, Wednesday afternoon I was doing some driving and was amazed at how much the regional Christian radio station was focussing on Lent. They had a large number of call-ins with testimonies about what people were giving up for Lent. It ranged from bad habits, to trivial things, to coffee, to moralism like "instead of trying to give something up, try to do something nice every day." By far the best (or worst depending on how you look at it) were "I'm going to give up negative thoughts and be positive."

It made me think: "Wait, what?! Are we Protestants?"

Here are my thoughts about Lent.

1. I don't really care what you give up or don't give up. If you want to give up coffee, great--I won't, but if you feel like it is 'enslaving you' go ahead and give it up. It won't hurt you physically or spiritually... well, ok, maybe you'll be more irritable for 40 days but then you can try to give that up during lent too. I will modify a Pauline phrase: neither Lent or non-Lent,  matters, what matters in the New Creation.

2. Your Lenten celebrations won't 'do' anything spiritual for you. No really, they won't. Listen to what Paul says:
Colossians 2:20 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— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 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
I am not going to unpack this exegetically except to say: forgoing anything during Lent is not going to do one ounce of spiritual good in putting to death the 'indulgence of the flesh.' At its worst, Lent is a form of asceticism or self-made religion and we trick ourselves into thinking that it is a means of crucifying the flesh.

Again, my take is: if you want to celebrate Lent it's not bad to give something up. It's not bad to say "I can go without something because I am too obsessed with it [e.g. coffee]." But don't think it is a higher form of Christian obedience or that it will mark you on a spiritual path towards dealing with the flesh.

This is probably one of the saddest things about the whole "what did you give up for Lent" discussion: it presupposed that giving up things for Lent would help you with your spiritual life and 'the flesh,' our sinful self.

3. Lenten celebrations don't go far enough. By far the most infamous comments on the Christian radio were ones that talked about giving up some outward habit that truly were sinful. So if you have a cursing problem a person might propose giving it up.

The problem it that this doesn't find the root of sin as deep enough. We need more to our spiritual life then giving up our habits for 40 days and hoping they will be gone for good. This is a bit like pulling out weeds by cutting off the stems. If you never get to the root, you never get the weed.

How many people will not say any curse words because of Lent but will hold anger in their heart? How many people vow to get rid of lashing out in anger but will never by outward habits deal with their heart?

We live in a day and age where people assume that the heart can be controlled and reshaped merely by changing the outward habits. People will cite psychological study to defend such methods, and Christians buy in to it.

Biblical teaching is quite different. The heart needs to be changed. If the heart is changed the habits will flow from the heart. This thought flows into my next.

4. Changing outward habits for Lent doesn't take sin serious enough. Sin is deeper than something a 40 day Lent period can deal with. In this way, Lent celebration can subtly soften our view of sin. I need to be crucified and made alive in Christ--and no amount of Lent season can deal with this. Lent is not a means of sanctification, Christ alone is.

My worry is that such obsessive focus on Lent and what it can do for us, will actually make Christ less sweet. His majesty and the depths of his work for us will seem shallow because we've used Lent to make sin, its effects, its causes and its perversity something milder than the horrid depths at which the Bible portrays it.

The most disheartening thing about the Christian Radio conversations that I overheard is that sin was largely treated at surface level as an external problem hence people shared their external treatments to the problem. We should weep over such a shallow definition of sin because in such contexts the penetrating medicine that only Christ truly offers is overlooked for more user friendly options.

5. Whatever happened to justification by faith? There seems to be a subtle slide into justification by Lent. Perhaps I'm overstating my case... but consider this: Roman Catholics believe in justification by faith... but not by faith alone. For them faith combines with charity and righteousness is infused in us by the Spirit and our patterns of behavior. The righteousness of justification comes from within.

This was not all that dissimilar from our Lenten call-ins. 'Sure I trust Christ, sure I believe he died for me, but now I'll really be a serious Christian with a right standing before God because of how I am living during Lenten season.' I couldn't help but think the calls were less about 'the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God' (Gal. 2:20) and more about 'the life I live during Lent I live by giving up things to make God pleased.'  The emphasis seemed to me to drift towards a works-centered approach with self-denial as a means of vindication of the Christian.

I think one of the primary reasons for giving up Lent is what we need to communicate about justification by faith alone. Of course, distinct and inseparable from our justification is our sanctification in Christ. But even sanctification taken seriously has little or nothing to do with Lent.

Look, I'm not against Lent per se. Nothing wrong with giving up some habit for 40 days. Just don't turn it into some spiritual quest. Don't treat it as a means of crucifying the flesh. Be on your guard about the potential for undermining key Protestant doctrines. I really do mean this is a potential not an absolute.

I am sure many who celebrate Lent as Protestants are well meaning. I just worry: are the doctrines of the Reformation so far gone that we can't even see the works-righteousness approach that is creeping back into our Christianity? I worry that evangelical young people celebrate Lent because it is cool, trendy and a mark of 'serious Christian commitment.' If this is true it is horrid to the 'good news' of the gospel.

I don't want to be legalistically for or against Lent. I would just caution you to think about things Biblically and carefully. Examine your heart before you proceed. Ask yourself: what does this say about my doctrine? Will Lent highlight the gospel of free grace or take away from it?

I would say in some cases--though admittedly not in all--it actually does begin to point away from free grace in the gospel. The danger is that we never notice the subtle shift in direction and soon find ourself heading down a road to another gospel.


Scott said...

I remember years ago listening to Leonard Ravenhill preach - probably on one of those tapes made available through Keith Green Ministries for whatever you can afford. (Only maybe the I've-been-a-christian-since-1985-or-before-reader will understand.) Ravenhill mentioned lent and then said "For Lent why don't you give UP SIN." he said this in his powerful, convicting manner exposing superficiality on the hand and heart motive on the other. Whenever people begin to talk about giving up for lent I always think of Ravenhill's words. "You really want to give something up - then Give up sin."

Dan Kassis said...

I wrote something very similar to this on my blog last year. My writing also came as a response to so much of the talk about Lent I was hearing in Evangelical circles. Thanks for providing this viewpoint. I think you're doing the church a good service.

My post: What is the Protestant to make of Lent?

Bec said...

Jesus had an expectation that his followers would fast, "When you fast..." (Mt 6:16-18). Have you tried fasting? Can you say from experience that it isn't useful?

My experience has been that fasting is very useful. Not for justification obviously, but for sanctification. We are supposed to be transformed and this happens through renewing the mind, forming new habits, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

But I don't think giving up something for lent "because that's what we do" is helpful though. Fasting has to come out of a genuine response to God's leading I think to be helpful. I can't stand empty ritual...

See also:

Unknown said...

Good point about fasting.
Of course, I couldn't deal with all the issues in one post.

You are of course right that fasting in not for our justification.

I agree with you about empty ritual.
Here's a link to a sermon I preached on fasting.

One thing that it might be worth noting is that when Jesus talks about fasting, he instructs us to do it in a way that does not draw attention to ourselves. In fact, we should dress and act normal as if we aren't fasting. Fasting during Lent isn't bad, but don't let people know you are doing it.

Great comments.


Unknown said...

For some reason my previous comment posted the wrong link.

Try this one