In a compelling examination of the practice of Lent, author and Bible study teacher Denise Loock tackles the practice of ritual fasting and whether a Christian should give something up for the forty days ahead of this Easter.
The practice of self-examination and repentance during the weeks before Easter traces its roots back nearly 2,000 years, Loock explains. "Early church fathers and the Council of Nicea (AD 325) observed days of fasting—from a few days to 40 days—but it was Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) who established the 40-day season between Ash Wednesday and Easter that many 21st-century Christians observe."
"Many Christians view Lent as an opportunity to refocus attention on God’s love for us, so great a love that he sent his son to die for our sins," Loock says in defense of the practice. "Giving up something we love—a food or an activity—to remind us of God’s sacrificial love can be beneficial to our spiritual growth, especially if we replace it with a spiritual discipline such as Bible reading, prayer, or fasting. During Lent, we can evaluate our spiritual health—how well the life of the Risen Christ is being manifest in us."
However, Loock also warns of the danger that comes with setting aside specific days for what is an otherwise godly and fruitful practice of introspection and repentance. Lent, like any other spiritual practice, can become a "hollow ritual", and we may "develop a Lenten and non-Lenten attitude as easily as we develop a Sunday and non-Sunday mind-set, falling into the sin Jesus exposed in the Pharisees: 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; (Matthew 15:8-9 NIV)."
Loock points to several Scriptures which make it clear that physical sacrifices are only profitable if they’re given from heart wholly devoted to God: "The prophet Samuel told King Saul, 'To obey is better than sacrifice' (1 Samuel 15:22). And David wrote, 'You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it.…The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit…a broken and humbled heart' (Psalm 51:16-17 HCSB)."
Jesus also criticized the Pharisees for offering meaningless sacrifices (Matthew 23:23-25). "The same could be said of any spiritual practice we undertake for the wrong reason," Loock explains, "whether it be Sunday morning worship, small-group Bible study, volunteer work, or personal devotional time."
Instead, our sacrifice must be daily, not seasonal. Jesus said in Luke 9:23, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (NLT). When Paul writes of presenting your body as a living sacrifice, this is a continual process, not an annual event (Romans 12:1-2).
Instead of a seasonal ritual of personal sacrifice, Loock instead encourages Christians to do put these into practice:
- Daily contemplation of the price Jesus paid for my sins and my inability to meet God’s standard of righteousness
- Daily commitment to rely more on the Holy Spirit and less on myself
- Daily reflection on the endless supply of God’s mercy and grace
- Daily gratitude for the ways he allows me to be his hands and feet in a hurting world
Ultimately, what God teaches us in the message of Easter is the new life available to every person because of the redemption Jesus provided through his death and resurrection. "If we’ve accepted Jesus as Savior, we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). And, as Paul told the Galatian churches, 'The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me' (2:20 MSG)," Loock concludes.
"If we spend the weeks before Easter cultivating a spiritual practice that makes our new life more evident to others year-round, we honor the Risen Christ who gave us that life, don’t we?"