I’m a Southern Baptist, which, among other things, means I’m a low church, free church evangelical. Furthermore, I’m a convictionally reformational Baptist, meaning I resonate with what I believe to be the best of the magisterial reformers in terms of Scripture and salvation and the best of the radical reformers in terms of ecclesiology and mission. Folks like me are supposed to be suspicious of Lent. Yet, beginning tomorrow, I will be observing the Lenten season for the next forty days, as I have done virtually every year for the past dozen years. Why?
Before discussing why I observe Lent, it might be helpful to discuss what Lent is. After all, many of this blog’s readers are low church, free church evangelicals like me, and I bet more than a few aren’t sure what Lent is and where it comes from. Lent is a key season of the Christian Calendar that is observed by many different Christian traditions. Specifically, for Christians in the West, Lent is a period of dedicated prayer, repentance, giving and self-denial that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday; the latter is the day before Good Friday, which commemorates the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. You can read more about the history of Lent in this article by Ted Olsen.
Different traditions practice Lent in different ways. Some groups combine prescribed fasts (especially from meat) and mediating on the Stations of the Cross. Others take a less stringent approach, instead focusing upon voluntarily giving up some luxury (or, perhaps in the short-term, a necessity) during the Lenten season as a way to focus upon spiritual matters. For some traditions, Lent is an “ought” that should be observed by all Christians. For others, Lent is a “can” that Christians are welcome, but not required, to observe.
As a Baptist, I do not believe we should bind people’s consciences by prescribing extra-biblical traditions. And like many good Christian practices, even among the most scripturally punctilious of evangelicals, Lent is most certainly an extra-biblical tradition. For that reason, I would never insist that someone observe Lent. But I do believe it is appropriate to recommend Lent, which is what I’m doing in this post. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, especially of the low church, free church type, then I would encourage you to consider celebrating Lent over the next forty days.
For my part, I choose to observe Lent because it affords me an opportunity to disengage a bit from the culture of what Tim Suttle calls satiation—“the absolute satisfaction of every human need to the point of excess.” As a relatively affluent American evangelical, at least compared to most believers in the world, I’m particularly prone to satiation. And the more I’m satiated, the easier it is for my affections to become dulled to the most important priorities—the kingdom priorities—that ought to animate my life. So, if you want to think about this way, I’m making an Edwardsean argument for my own Lenten observance. (Recognizing, of course, that Edwards himself would not have been a fan of Lent.) I want to unplug for awhile (metaphorically speaking) in order to redirect my affections towards the One whose infinite beauty and worth surpasses all the good, but fleeting pleasures of this life.
If you’re interested in giving Lent a whirl, consider practicing some of the following spiritual disciplines during this season:
- If your health will allow, set aside a day each week to fast through breakfast and lunch, spending some extra time in prayer and Scripture meditation
- Voluntarily give up some good thing for the sake of some extra meditation on the best thing, the good news of the gospel (if you’re having trouble thinking of a good thing to give up, consider some sort of partial media fast like giving up television or internet)
- Memorize one of the passion accounts from the four Gospels or a different passage related to the cross and resurrection
- Spend some extra time reading through a devotional book such as John Piper’s Fifty Reasons Jesus Came to Die or Nancy Guthrie’s Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross: Experiencing the Passion and Power of Easter
If you’re reading this post and you are uncomfortable with Lent, no worries. You absolutely don’t have to observe Lent. The Lenten season is a “can,” not an “ought,” so follow your conscience in this matter. Furthermore, choosing to observe Lent doesn’t make you more spiritual or mean that you love Jesus more than those who don’t dig Lent. But if you’re interested in embracing an intentional season of self-denial, repentance, and biblical intake in the hope of personal spiritual renewal, then I’d encourage you to at least consider observing Lent this year.
For a helpful discussion on why three Christians in different traditions choose to celebrate Lent, check out the roundtable discussion titled “Lent—Why Bother?” which was originally published in Christianity Today in February 2010. The contributors include Steve Harmon (a fellow Baptist), Frederica Mathewes-Green (Eastern Orthodox) and Michael Horton (Presbyterian/Reformed). For another Baptist recommendation of Lent, see this thoughtful blog post by Alan Rudnick.
(Note: An earlier version of this post was published at Between the Times in February 2013 under the title “Why I Observe Lent.” It has been updated for re-publication.)