Beginning Wednesday, February 14, I will embark on another forty-day journey of seeking Christ and setting aside, voluntarily, some activities that I will use as a reminder to myself that I am abiding in Christ. Literally millions of Christians (and many non-believers who will do this out of rote religiosity), will be celebrating Lent during these forty days (excluding Sundays) until Easter. I will join them, and some of you will join in as well.
Allow me to share with you some brief advice concerning any intentional practice of seeking a closer, more intimate relationship with God, whether it is during Lent, Advent, retreats of silence, prayer vigils, fasting, or any other period of time you choose to set aside for intentionally seeking the Lord.
First - be careful! It is well documented in the annals of Christian history how quickly a voluntary practice can become a law for believers. The Bible does not command us to celebrate specific holy days or practices (short of the command to seek the Lord) to increase our holiness. However, it does invite us to willingly set aside good things that are lawful for us in order to focus on our relationship with Christ (Matt. 6:16-17; 9:15; Acts 18:18; 21:26; Rom. 14:5-12). Fasting, for example, is a wholesome, godly practice, but to practice it does not mean that enjoying good food is inherently evil. When fasting becomes a law for us, or a means by which we extract God's blessings from him as a payment for our good deeds, it has become a death-producing weight on us, not a life-giving and God-exalting act of worship. This is true for all voluntary practices that we engage in to draw closer to the Lord.
Second - enjoy the intentional time that you have set aside to abide in Christ. If praying through a night is a burden to you, and only makes you grumpy, angry, or self-righteous – do not do it. However, if setting aside a specific time for prayer or taking a day to spend alone in a retreat of silence helps you as you learn to love and cherish Christ more, than do so with joy and make the most of that time. Joy should be our motivation, not obligation. However, that joy may be accompanied by self-sacrifice and periods of self-denial. True Christian joy does not demand that we be full and satisfied.
Third – do not pass judgment on others if they do not choose to make use of the church calendar, nor allow yourself to be unfairly judged by others if you do. I fully realize that there are some Protestants who cringe at the fact that I choose to celebrate church calendar events like Advent and Lent and appeal to them as a means by which we can intentionally draw closer to Christ. I can live with that and agree to disagree with these brothers and sisters in Christ. In reality, almost all of us recognize annual calendar markers in our lives (semesters, new years, fall/spring break, Christmas, Easter, etc.). We choose to celebrate those life-markers, holidays, and holy days that are meaningful for us, and to ignore those that are not. I believe the word of God would say to us that we are free to approach life in this manner (Romans 14:1-19).
Finally – As you practice Lent, prepare yourself for the celebration of Resurrection Sunday. In the ancient church, great feasts followed all great fasts. The fasting prepared the participant for the feast to come. We do not “discipline our bodies,” as the apostle Paul said, for no reason. We do so in order to “obtain the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Lenten practices prepare us for Easter celebrations.
On Ash Wednesday, I will set aside time to ask God to use these brief forty days to reveal himself to me in such a way that I am a stronger, more vibrant Christ-follower at the end of Lent than I was at the beginning. If you are also focusing on a similar desire in your life during this season, my prayer is that God will do the very same for you. I recommend the following article if you would like to read more about the practice of Lenten celebration: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/02/13/why-bother-with-lent
Grace and peace,