What is Lent?

Guest Post by Pete Kelley

After years of joking with my Baptist friends about ‘giving up Lent for Lent’ and ‘fasting from fasting’, I now find myself a firm believer in the observance of the season of Lent.

About 10 years ago I decided to give Lent a try and I haven’t looked back since.  It has become a season I enter into each year with fear and trembling, but at the same time joyful hope.  For me, food has always been more than food, so fasting in a significant way requires me to relearn how to receive life directly from Christ. It’s a painful but deeply rewarding experience every year.

While Lent is sometimes considered by Protestants to be a “Catholic thing”, the reality is that followers of Jesus from all traditions of the faith have been observing Lent ever since the earliest days of Christianity as a way of growing in their faith and expanding their capacity to receive and give the love of God.

For a point of reference, early Christian leaders discussed the practice of a season of fasting before Easter during the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which makes the idea of Lent at least as old as the doctrine of the Trinity.  Lent is not just a “Catholic” thing; it’s a Christian thing.

If you’re not familiar with Lent, here are a few basics on what Lent is, what Lent is not and why to observe Lent.

Lent is: 

A six-week season in the Christian calendar prior to Easter. Officially, Lent is comprised of the 40 days before Easter, not counting the Sundays, or 46 days in total. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for “spring”.  Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter.

A time for spiritual growth. In the ancient church, Lent was a season for new Christians to be instructed for baptism and for believers caught in sin to focus on repentance. In time, all Christians came to see Lent as a time to be reminded of their need for self-examination.

A time to create space for God through fasting. Lent is meant to reflect the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and resisting temptation prior to His ministry. By practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting, we follow Jesus into the wilderness, resist temptation and pray.

A time of preparation. In Lent, we prepare for a jubilant celebration of the resurrection and its promise of new life. Turning from the old self at Lent and experiencing a dying of old ways prepares us to truly experience the joy of Easter.

Lent is not:

A biblical requirement. Christians are free to observe it or not, as they feel led by the Spirit and according to the practices of their particular family and church.

A way to earn more of God’s love and grace. God already loves us more than we can imagine. His grace is given freely without regard to what we do. That’s the definition of grace. So, we must not think of Lent as a time to earn what has already been given to us in abundance. Rather, it is an opportunity to open our hearts to receive more of God’s grace, to grow in God’s love for us, and to share his grace and love with others.

Why Observe Lent:

Lent exposes our idols.  This is pretty embarrassing, but when I fast from food, I sometimes find myself searching for pictures of food online – looking for the comfort, security and pleasure that food gives.  Fasting quickly exposes those things in our lives that we look to for what only God can be.

Lent trains us to suffer well.  As followers of the Suffering Servant, we shouldn’t be that surprised when pain, loss and rejection come our way, but many Christians find themselves unprepared to “rejoice in all kinds of trials” because we have grown accustomed to comfortable lives.  Fasting is a season of voluntarily discomfort that prepares to us experience God’s presence when true suffering comes our way.

Lent builds our “no” muscles.  Following Jesus requires us to say no to many things in order to say yes to Him.  No to that impure thought.  No to holding that grudge.  No to the drink that would be one too many.  The discipline of fasting strengthens our ability to say no, not just to things we are fasting from, but also to other temptations and impulses.

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