Every year in February or March, Ash Wednesday kicks off the first day of Lent — a largely Roman Catholic tradition that is essentially a six-week season of grieving and remorse over your sin. It is, however, also observed by Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists officially, and in recent years, many mainline Protestants and Evangelicals have jumped on the bandwagon.
Typically, it involves some modernized notion of fasting — basically, giving something (traditionally, meat) up for a few weeks. But, over the course of modern history, it has morphed into a free-for-all kind of abstaining from anything you choose.
1.) Fasting is not a corporate activity and, in fact, Scripture warns against the corporate practice of fasting and prayer. It is to be done privately.
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. —Matthew 6:16-18
Lent, as practiced by mainstream Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, is a corporate, church-wide call to fasting — something the Scripture never commands us to do. Fasting, for the believer, is a spiritual discipline practiced for the purpose of drawing personally closer in union with God.
2.) Fasting will not gain you favor with God. Many who observe Lent believe that by doing so, they will gain favor with God. It has become, to them, an act of penance — an attempt to atone for their own sins. This is especially true in the Catholic Church, but the tradition has crept into Evangelical circles as well. Believing that the act of fasting will in any way turn away God’s wrath is actually a curse, as it says in Galatians 5:4, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
There is but one way to gain favor with God, and that is to be covered by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. You must turn from your unrighteous works, and turn to Christ alone, for what he has accomplished is sufficient.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. —John 8:36
3.) The modern practice of giving something up is unbiblical. Fasting, in the Bible, is the practice of giving up nourishing food — something that your body relies on for life. The practice of giving up something necessary and life-sustaining would cause one to focus on God and rely on Him solely to sustain them. Today, Lent is practiced in such a fashion that, for the most part, people only give up luxuries and unnecessary things in their life. While it is commendable to purge excess weight from your spiritual walk, giving up television, dessert, or video games for six weeks is not what Jesus had in mind when he taught his disciples to fast.
4.) Lent is a tradition of men. While it is not necessarily sinful to observe a special day that is not prescribed in Scripture — to do so compulsively, or, as stated above, to gain favor with God is idolatry. While not all who practice Lent are doing it necessarily by compulsion, the very act of a church-wide season of Lent places pressure on some to do something they would not have otherwise done.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. —Colossians 2:8
5.) Spiritual disciplines should not be limited to one season. While prayer and fasting, and purging excess idols or distractions in your life are good, limiting these practices to a six-week time frame then becomes a work of self-righteousness rather than a heart that desires obedience to God. While there may be different times and seasons in your life when the Holy Spirit nudges you to fast and pray — perhaps due to certain circumstances in your life — doing so solely based on the rotation of a calendar year is a bad practice.
We are called to continue steadfastly in prayer and thanksgiving — always (Colossians 4:2) and to devote our entire lives to God at all times, not just during Lent.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. —Galatians 2:20