If you spend any time reading blogs you will have no doubt come across scores of posts from across the spectrum on the issue of Lent. Should we observe Lent? Is it a Roman Catholic Trojan Horse? Does it cultivate spiritual health or undercut it? Do practices like Lent even make sense for those of us within the Reformed tradition? Is this just an example of an issue of indifference or is something deeper at stake?
These are questions which are worth considering, but as many minds better than my own have touched on some of them (see here, here, here, or here) I want to take this question from a slightly different angle. As a Confessional Presbyterian I’m sympathetic to many of the concerns and issues raised in the articles linked to above, but I think the feedback I’m seeing to them (on Facebook and elsewhere) illustrates an important point: it’s never enough to stand against something unless you are also standing for something. Applying that to this situation means that any rejection of Lent must be coupled with a recovery of fasting.
There are two equally obvious truths where fasting and the evangelical church are concerned. The first is that fasting is commanded, and the second is that it is almost never practiced. In the famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus lists three facets of discipleship: giving, praying, and fasting. In each of these cases he introduces these practices by saying “when you…” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). “When you fast” tells us that fasting is not optional. It’s not something that we might do it’s something that we must do. To use the language of the Westminster Directory for Public Worship,
“When some great and notable judgments are either inflicted upon a people, or apparently imminent, or by some extraordinary provocations notoriously deserved; as also when some special blessing is to be sought and obtained, public solemn fasting […] is a duty that God expects from that nation or people.“
Fasting is not foreign to the Scriptures or to the Reformed tradition, but it is foreign to most evangelicals (including Reformed evangelicals) today. Why are people so drawn to Lent? Perhaps part of the reason is that it’s the closest most of us ever come to fulfilling Christ’s commands to fast.
By all means, we should tackle the issues raised in the articles above, but let’s not leave it at that. Our theology must not only be told it should also be shown. Perhaps the greatest argument we could make against Lent would be to practice biblical fasting privately, as families, and as churches. This is part of our heritage, and even more importantly, it’s part of Christ’s command to His bride. Perhaps if we do a better job of showing the alternative we won’t have to spend so much time arguing our case.
(If you’re not sure where to start on this you can find a helpful sermon on fasting here: http://sheffieldpres.org.uk//images/ben/January%202014/4.%2012.1.14pm%20Fasting.mp3)