As described, it does not seem that observing Lent is a bad idea. After all, there are plenty of American(ized) believers who could do with a little sacrifice in the name of Christ. What is the harm in making some commitments, rejecting some pleasures, or fasting from those things that we enjoy in order to help us focus on the season? Maybe none. Maybe plenty.
In the interest of full disclosure, I come from a staunchly Catholic background. My mother’s side of the family is Catholic, indeed, many are practicing Catholics. I have three great aunts who are nuns and a great uncle who is a priest. My mother went to Catholic school. You get the picture. So, while I cast no aspersions on my brothers and sisters who choose to celebrate the Lenten season, there are a few reasons I do not.
1. Our hearts crave glory.
Human beings have an innate desire to want credit. Indeed, we crave glory. The gospel is explicitly anti-human glory. The gospel is a perpetual reminder that we can’t, but Jesus can. Because my own heart wants to take some credit, wants to share some of God’s glory in my salvation, I want to avoid those things that seem to scream out “look at what I am sacrificing!” If you think they don’t, ask a traditional practicing Catholic to join you for a burger next Friday. You will hear, “I gave that up for Lent.” Whatever I give up for Lent will undoubtedly require some kind of explanation. Our human hearts love that explanation because it places us in prime position for a little glory. Overstated? Perhaps. But, Jeremiah reminded us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jer 17:9).”
2. Jesus’ death was a great sacrifice.
In one sense, the death of Christ was the most horrific thing in all of human history. The perfect, sinless Son of God was brutally executed by Roman soldiers who collaborated with Jewish religious leaders. At the same time, it was the most glorious of all deaths. In the death of Jesus, God reconciled the world to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19). As the old saying goes, his love made the payment for sin that his holiness demanded.
It might do us well to remember that Jesus’ death cost him something; that it really was a great sacrifice. How exactly can I try to memorialize that? By giving up hamburgers? By turning off the TV? By choosing to not eat dessert? It seems to me that any attempt I may make does not memorialize the death of Christ as much as it trivializes it. When I visited the Grand Canyon, I stood on the south rim in awe of God’s creation. Now how could I try to approximate that for someone who has not seen it? In a sense I see our attempts at Lent the way Clark Griswold treated the Grand Canyon; a hurried, quick glance that reflected more on his shallowness than the grandeur of the Canyon.
3. Jesus’ sacrifice brought us freedom!
The final reason I do not observe Lent is because the death of Christ won me freedom. Freedom from the Law. Freedom from attempting to please God with my good behavior, or sacrifices, or any other meritorious act. The kind of freedom that is found in the Sabbath rest of God provided by Christ alone. I am certainly not suggesting that all those who engage in Lenten observances are trying to earn favor with God or engage in meritorious acts. Yet, because of the deceitfulness of the heart, we must tread very carefully in seeking to engage in sacrifices that God has not specifically called us to make.
It seems to me that the best way we can prepare for the Easter season is to live in the full light of God’s grace. In a sense, Fat Tuesday (minus the sinful behavior!) is a better picture of the Christian who is saved by (and lives by) grace alone than Ash Wednesday is. The reasons I do not observe Lent are just that: my reasons. Fortunately, we have some freedom in this matter. Paul reminded the church at Rome that the freedom Christ won extends to whether we observe certain days or whether we choose to abstain from certain foods (Rom 14:1-8). So, whether you choose to observe Lent or not, do so with a clear conscience because of Christ’s great sacrifice.