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Isn’t Lent just superstitious nonsense?

March 20, 2011
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Ash Wednesday fasting seasonFor those of us in the low church reformed tradition, Lent is something of an oddity. The idea of fasting, of giving up something or the more modern trend of taking up something is a tradition which is often eyed with a certain level of suspicion. No more prominent evangelical than Calvin stated in his Institutes that in his time:

‘the superstitious observance of Lent has everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven.’

From the Reformers repulsion of the superstitions of their time, and the popular thought that mere participation in such superstitions some how bought them merit before God has come an evangelical suspicion of not only Lent but, in some instances, the whole church calendar; with some even banning Christmas!

So is Lent just superstitious nonsense? Is then there any room for an observance of Lent within the life of the evangelical Christian?

Well it depends, as with so much other stuff, on your heart attitude, on your reason for taking part. Clearly, and as Calvin points out, if you participate in Lent as a means to ‘merit-make’ to earn something from God, then you are doing it for the wrong reasons, you’ve misunderstood the Gospel and you’ve misunderstood God. This is the reason why Calvin criticises the season of Lent, in what during his time was a European society that had a sub-Christian view of salvation. However, if you hold to the Gospel of grace and understand that God has already acted to save you and you don’t and can’t add anything to His justification then I think that Lent can be useful as part of your devotional life.

Giving up something which is a stable part of your life, something which is therefore by definition difficult to do with out, can help us to focus our mind daily on Christ. For example in the morning, in years when I’ve given up tea for Lent, as I reach for the kettle to get my morning caffeine fix I remember I’ve given it up and this leads me to remember what Christ gave up for me, both in His incarnation and as we approach Easter in His death. This year, after giving up Facebook, something which took up far to much of my time, I now have more time and have used it to read the Bible and Christian books; so not only am I reminded of Christ as I remember what I’ve given up but also I am benefitting from the time I now have.

Thinking of Lent in this way, as I time when other things are put aside, when in the approach to Easter we can refocus and for six weeks try to break bad habits and start to create good habits, I have found to be a helpful reminder of the gospel rather than a distraction from it. Perhaps finding time to read a gospel and meditate again on Christ’s death and resurrection all help us to use this time to rededicate ourselves to His service.

I wonder what useful ways you have found to use Lent to focus on Christ?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2011 8:29 pm

    Lent, or even fasting, is a choice that we should be making from our hearts. It allows us to clear our minds and focus on our faith. It should not be about ‘what we are giving up’, but rather on ‘what we are receiving’.

    • March 20, 2011 10:48 pm

      Thanks Mary, I totally agree! We receive far more than we ever ‘give up’!

  2. March 20, 2011 10:49 pm

    Lent is absurd when people only observe it and during the rest of the year forget sacrifice to live a normal life. The message of Lent, to sacrifice self for all (for God, and for others), falls on deaf ears, if it falls at all, on people who think of it as a once a year ritual. Fasting can be done at any time, for any reason, and serves us best when it’s not necessary. We really shouldn’t have to be reminded at all. That we have to be reminded relegates Lent to the position of hassle, instead of where it should be, a celebration.

  3. March 21, 2011 5:40 am

    there’s nothing to lose if you’re going to follow it.We, Filipinos, have a bunch of supertitions.

    • March 21, 2011 10:15 pm

      Thanks Faye, I’m not sure what superstitions means in the your country but in England its a negative thing! Its belief in something which is just silly, something which isn’t rational and has no real effect – unlike faith!

  4. March 24, 2011 10:29 am

    Great reflections Mike, I really appreciated this post. This year is my first year observing Lent and at first I was confused as to how I was going to go about it! I really had a heart set on finding renewal and a deeper level of devotion with God that I could carry on with me throughout the year. At first I was going to give something up, like facebook, but then thought it would be more distracting than anything else so decided instead to add extra time for scripture reading, meditation and prayer. I have given up reading some of what I like to so that I can focus more on reading God’s Word and have found many blessings have come about due to that and it is surely something I will continue far after Easter is said and done.

    • March 24, 2011 12:19 pm

      Really glad that you have worked out what you would do for Lent and chose reading God’s Word as something to take more time over. Such time in God’s Word is never wasted and its a great way to prepare for Easter.

  5. March 27, 2011 3:15 pm

    Mike – Great post. I must share that the Catholic Church no longer focuses on ‘giving up’ things for Lent, but rather on transformation. And instead of focusing on food, it suggests, for example, that people spend less time watching television and use that time for do something positive……Not sure whether you realize that the 40 days of ‘sacrifice’ is also part of the Muslim tradition and many Hindus also have the practice of 40 days – I was told that 40 days (or six weeks like you said) is a good time to break a bad habit…..

    • March 27, 2011 10:24 pm

      Thanks for your comment Corinne. I hear from my Roman Catholic friends that there are many great changes happening within your church and anything we focuses on bringing us closer to Christ must be of benefit. Just been on your blog which looks great, are you a Catholic?

  6. March 28, 2011 8:35 pm

    Thanks Corinne… I’d say I was an evangelical with Catholic exposure!!

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