Giving Up Lent for Lent

There’s good reason why many Christians know very little about the observance of the “Lenten Season.”  Simply stated, the Bible nowhere speaks of a “Lenten Season,” making this observance entirely an ordinance of man.

But now here’s a question, “What’s so wrong with observing a man-made religious memorial if it is rooted in such biblical principles as prayer, fasting, and alms-giving?”  Before answering that question, allow me to briefly explain what Lent is.

Lent is a period of 40 days of penance (which typically includes prayer, fasting, and alms-giving)  in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day-long Lenten period.  On this day, participants in Lent have ashes placed on their foreheads in an effort to replicate the Old Testament practice of putting ashes on one’s head, which was an expression of repentance.  During these 40 days of Lent, Ash Wednesday, and every Friday are to be a day of fasting.

So now, back to the question, ” “What’s so wrong with observing a man-made religious memorial if it is rooted in such biblical principles as prayer, fasting, and alms-giving?”  Here’s my answer… This question assumes that the man-made religious ordinance of Lent is biblically rooted.

Consider the practice of placing ashes on the forehead which takes place on Ash Wednesday.  Yes, I know that during Old Testament times, people would fast and put ashes on their head expressing their repentance through this outward display (e.g. Daniel 9:3).  But does this practice follow the teaching of Jesus on this matter?  Does Jesus want us to make a display and publicize our fasting?  Allow him to speak to these questions:

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).

Jesus commanded the exact opposite of what is practiced by the man-made observance of “Ash Wednesday.”  According to the man-made memorial of Ash Wednesday, practitioners publicize their fasting and “dirty” their faces with ashes.  On the contrary, Jesus says to fast privately, and wash your face.

Furthermore, according to those who instituted this practice of Lent, the fasting on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during the 40 days is a matter of obligation (Code of Canon Law, 1252).  Grant it, authority to the conference of bishops to substitute another form of penance besides fasting (e.g. works of piety and charity) for the Friday abstinence rule is given, but there is still a requirement involved (Code of Canon Law, 1253).

Now consider the practice and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus constantly shook up the religious establishment of his day by disregarding their man made ordinances (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 3:1-6), and even exposing how they had actually elevated some of their traditions above the word of God (Mark 7:1-13).  The gospel that Jesus taught was a gospel free from the heavy burdens of man-made ordinances (Matthew 23:4), and the legalism of man-made obligations (Colossians 2:20-22).  Rather than submitting ourselves to man-made ordinances, the Lord, through the apostle Paul commanded us to “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).

So am I saying one shouldn’t give themselves to a period of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving?  Of course not!  Should Christians fast?  Most certainly (Matthew 9:14-15).  But their fasting should be in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and not the ordinances of men (Matthew 6:1-18).  Should Christians pray? Definitely!  “Without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Should Christians give alms to the poor?  Without question (Galatians 6:10; James 1:27).

Bottom line: Christians should fast, pray, and give alms to the poor, but not under the auspices and strictures of “Lent,” a man-made ordinance that actually violates the teachings of Jesus.  Instead, why not “give up Lent for Lent” and fast, pray, and give alms within the context and freedom of Christian liberty and the teachings of Jesus?

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Comments 18

  • Hello! this is good article. Can I post or share in my own Face book? Thanks for this article. God bless.

  • Virginia, you most certainly can. That’s why that “Facebook” button is placed beneath the article. Just click it and it will help you post it to your Facebook page. Thanks for the encouragement and sharing the word.

  • Excellent thoughts Steve. Many in members of the church in our area are beginning to accept the practice of lent.

    I’m running this in our bulletin this week with your permission.

  • Thanks Ray, and you don’t ever need to ask permission. Hope you and Kay are doing well.

  • Steve,

    A good article! Keep up the good work!


  • I actually “googled” Lent earlier this week because I didn’t know what it’s background was either. Thanks for sharing such inspiring thoughts.

  • May the Lord bless you in your continual efforts to preach the whole counsel of God.

  • There’s a little more to it than this. The practice of Lent is grounded historically in the early church, in the time spent in preparing baptismal candidates for baptism, which was generally at Easter.

    You are right in highlighting the problems which come when Lent is stipulated as an obligation; but if people /choose/ to do it, and use the time before Easter as a time of spiritual discipline, as you fast from something that matters to you … then I am not sure what the problem is. Admittedly, I am speaking as a British Anglican, and our way of engaging with Lent is not the Catholic one.

  • Interesting…in observance of Lent I have thought about and wrestled with many of the points brought up in this note! Lent especially become legalistic and perceived merit and cause us to look down on others who do not ‘sacrifice’ as we do! Lent can also open doors of,temptation to boast in what we are doing for God. As long as what we do brings us closer to God and does not result in legalism and selfrighteousness then I say its fine!

  • The gentleman is correct in his idea that Lent is rooted in the practice of “the early church” as a time of preparation for baptism at Easter. The problem is that those “early church” leaders had ALREADY left the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, in that they were waiting until Easter for baptism. Baptism is not merely symbolic, or optional. Baptism is not to be put off until some date for dramatic effect. Easter morning baptism is no more, or less, important than August 18th at 2:13am baptism. Not a single example of baptism, as taught by the apostles, was performed after some certain period of fasting or other preparation. Baptism occurred as soon as a believer understood the significance of it in the plan of salvation, and as soon as enough water for burial could be located.

  • Paul guided by the Holy Spirit wrote letters to several congregations instructing them NOT to pay attention to special days, or feasts, or seasons as a religious matter.

  • Hello Ross,
    I appreciate your comments, however it seems you’ve overlooked three things. First, the fact that the “early church” did this or that doesn’t provide any support for an action. I can go to the first century church and give a shamefully long list of things the church did that were not approved by God. Authority is not derived from the church, but from the word of God, spoken by Jesus and those inspired by the Spirit. Second, the smearing of ashes on one’s forehead as a sign of penitence is in direct conflict with the words of Jesus, who said when you fast, wash your face so that know one knows you’re fasting. And third, Lent is practiced as an obligatory matter. Now if one were to say, “I’m not a part of that church, so I practice Lent under my own set of rules,” then my question would be “Why would you want to associate your noble actions of dedicating yourself to God through a period of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving with something that violates the will of God?”

    If one wishes to spend a period of time in pryer, fasting, and alms-giving, wonderful! My his tribe increase! But don’t do it under the auspices and strictures of that which stands in opposition to the teaching of Jesus.

  • Great article brother! It’s sad that soo many well intentioned people of the world follow practices that have little or no significance to being a faithful Christian. I will definitely repost your article to my friends and family.

  • The absence of Biblical authority for the entire package of Lenten observance (Col 3:17) makes it something that Christians should avoid.

  • I choose to follow Jesus and not man made religions!

  • Steve, thanks for you diligence as a student & your willingness to communicate truth in such a clear way.

  • It has become Protestant chic to try to get rid of “man made” stuff and return to Jesus or the bible but I think this is a misguided attempt to reclaim authenticity. The attempt is misguided because ritual does not lead to inauthentic worship any more than freeform worship. Ritual is in fact a form of religious practice. So we learn how to repent and mourn by practicing in ritual form, so when the “real” need for repentance, discipline and sacrifice comes along we are equipped for it. the problem with assuming that we will all do it whenever it is “real” is without setting aside a time to learn how to change our patterns we probably never will.

    Lent is a gift to the community, a reminder that everything is not always “shiny , happy” and what carries us through those times are discipline and looking to God.

  • Randall, I disagree with your first sentence. It’s not misguided to find authenticity by returning to Jesus and the Bible, and jettisoning “man-made stuff,” as you put it. In fact, that where authenticity is to be found. You seem to miss the point of my article. I wasn’t contrasting “ritual” with “freeform, and advocating one over the other. I am opposed to rituals or free-form expressions that violate, or contradict the teachings of the Bible.

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