Lent is about prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. Certainly those are good things. The question is whether it’s appropriate for Christians to set aside 40 days of the year to do these things in preparation for Easter.
Prayer is good. There’s nothing wrong with setting aside 40 days to pray. When compared with the Biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing”, however, the Lenten focus on prayer seems misguided. If someone needs a season like Lent to help them learn to make prayer a part of every waking moment, then Lent is good…as long as we don’t stop there.
While being penitent is good, penance – in my opinion – has no place in the life of a follower of Christ. It’s the process of suffering for your sins, and ignores the fact that Jesus suffered in our place. Along with the doctrine of Purgatory, it denies the sufficiency of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. Expressing sorrow over sin is good, but self-abasement for sins as an act of penance does indeed obscure the gospel.
Repentance is awesome. If someone needs a season like Lent to help them learn to make repentance a part of daily living, then Lent is good…as long as we don’t stop there.
Giving to the needy is awesome, too…you might see a pattern here. Christians are stewards of all that God has provided for us, so giving should be a daily focus. If it takes a season like Lent, well…good. But don’t stop there. Lent is often seen as a time when serious believers take more seriously their responsibility toward God. Unfortunately, the notion of discipleship is obscured by an annual time of doing what should be done all year long.
Self-denial is both a virtue and a discipline for Christians. However: denial as evidence of our piety, or as an act of penance, is a waste of time. In fact, Jesus warned that we are not to be like “the hypocrites” that we read about in Matthew 6: When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. When we wear a cross of ash on our foreheads to signify that we are observing Lent, are we not doing exactly what Jesus taught us not to do?
We are called to be living sacrifices because of what Jesus did for us, and spending 40 days in self-denial is a great way for someone to begin learning what self-denial means. Unfortunately, Lent is too often seen (like the annual sacrifices for the nation of Israel) as a covering…a way to ‘take care of business’ for another year.
There’s NOTHING wrong with the observance of Lent, of course. Prayer and repentance and giving and self-denial are things that all believers should practice…but not for only 40 days. The modern Christian church has too often replaced discipleship with ritual. A quick fix or a burst of activity might be good, or even necessary at times, to help an immature believer learn about discipleship. Were Lent seen as a gateway to a life lived more consistently, I would promote Lent all year long. Because it’s generally seen as an end in itself, I can’t pretend that even a devout observance during these 40 days is enough. We should all be doing – and teaching – more, shouldn’t we?