Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why I Do Not Celebrate Lent

It has become somewhat fashionable for evangelical Christians to observe Lent. Lent is the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter in which some Christians have voluntarily given up some things in their life in preparation for Easter. The act of “giving up” some things is intended to make us mindful of the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, which will ultimately culminate in his victory (and our return to enjoying that which we have given up).

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.


Sandy Crawford said...

I appreciate your position regarding lent and it has prompted me to reflect on this tradition. I recall as a child in elementary catholic school of giving up spaghetti for lent. I did not like spaghetti! The year before I gave up candy without any success. My focus was on me and what it was costing myself. When I separate myself from the tradition and/or the law and seek God, I learn His desires and it becomes about Him. This freedom from the law connects me to Him. How grateful I am to be connected to the Creator and have the privilege to be in a relationship with Him.

Sandy Crawford said...

Pastor Rob, can you please share what it means to "live in the full light of God's grace"?

Dr. Rob Pochek said...

What I mean by "live in the full light of God's grace" is to live our lives solely dependent upon the grace of God available to us in Christ alone. That means I consciously avoid thinking that any "good deeds" I do contribute anything to my salvation. It means I live life knowing that there is nothing I can do today to make God love me more; and nothing I can do today will make God love me less. His love is based on his grace, not my behavior. Thanks for asking!

Mr. Twisted said...

"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."

Honest question: how do you reconcile this statement with the fact that you wrote a public explanation for why you don't do something?

If possible, I encourage you to take 40 minutes of your time and listen to one of the greatest teachers of theology in the last 50 years explain the purpose of Lent:

Dr. Rob Pochek said...

That is a good question! As a pastor for the last 21 years, I've been asked countless times about celebrating Lent. In particular, I've been asked if I celebrate it. My post here was simply an explanation as to why I do not celebrate Lent.

You will note, however, in my final sentence that I don't find it to be sinful to do so. Indeed, I believe it to be a matter of Christian freedom. Like all freedom, there are always cautions, to make sure we not only do that which is permissible, but also that which is beneficial (1 Cor 6:12).

Thanks for the link. I'll give it a listen.

Mr. Twisted said...

I completely understand explaining your actions (or, in this case, non-action), and in no way fault you for doing so. Where I see an issue, however, is in what you describe as a reason for not celebrating Lent; specifically that "our human hearts love that explanation because it places us in prime position for a little glory." In using this as a reason, you are effectively demonstrating the exact action you claim is a reason for the non-action in the first place.

Could there be valid reasons for not celebrating Lent? Although I would argue that, from a theological perspective, there are not, let's suppose there are for the sake of the point here. Proceeding from that assumption, your first point can't be meaningful reason why, as it negates itself by its very premise and subsequent action. "I don't do X because X involves explaining X, and I don't think it is correct to explain X." That sentence is an explanation of non-action on X, so in essence you can't escape explaining X other than to remain silent.

This, by the way, is what Orthodox thinkers who are familiar with Western thought point out over and over again; that nearly every critique is something that, at its core, is inescapable and carried out in another fashion. It's not much different from a Christian-to-atheist argumentative perspective; the atheist says they don't worship anything, but as the educated theologian knows, we all worship something; the question is what and how much. My point is that in leveling a critique, we often engage in the exact same behavior we are criticizing because it is, in many cases, unavoidable.

Dr. Rob Pochek said...

I appreciate your input. I respectfully disagree with a couple of your remarks, however.
First, you assert that there are not legitimate reasons not to celebrate Lent. It appears, then, that you make the celebration of Lent to be a necessity; an act of Christian obligation. Does that make the failure to celebrate Lent a sin?

Second, if I am understanding your reasoning (and, your assessment of the thinking of Orthodox thinkers), I am not sure how one could ever make a critique of anything. If "nearly every critique is something that, at its core, is inescapable and carried out in another fashion," then one could never critique anything. I find that position to be untenable.

Using the example from my is possible that I made the post and asserted my non-celebration to engage in a bit of self-congratulatory vanity. It is also possible that I did not engage in any kind of self-congratulatory vanity in sharing my thoughts, rather, I simply shared some helpful warnings in a pastoral fashion.

As I shared in the post above, if you wish to celebrate Lent, by all means, do so. It is a matter of Christian conscience, not of biblical necessity.


Mr. Twisted said...

"It appears, then, that you make the celebration of Lent to be a necessity; an act of Christian obligation. Does that make the failure to celebrate Lent a sin?"

If we were assessing things as purely binary and turning everything into a dichotomy, I suppose; but I'm not, so I don't see that as a logical conclusion to draw from what I wrote. I simply stated that I don't see any valid theological reasons for not celebrating it; it does not follow that it's a sin (and I fully understand quickly this subject can get muddy).

"Second, if I am understanding your reasoning (and, your assessment of the thinking of Orthodox thinkers), I am not sure how one could ever make a critique of anything."

Perhaps I should have worded that point better. I was referring specifically to Protestant-based critiques of Orthodoxy. So when Protestant Theologian W. says, "Orthodoxy is wrong because they do X," they nearly always practice X; just in a different manner. That was not intended for any critique of any kind, so I apologize if the wording was confusing (which it clearly was, as I reread it).

"As I shared in the post above, if you wish to celebrate Lent, by all means, do so. It is a matter of Christian conscience, not of biblical necessity."

This depends entirely upon who is interpreting the Bible, naturally, and what you mean by terms like "conscience" and "necessity," but that's a pretty big can of worms now, isn't it? ;)

In all sincerity, yes, it is possible you made this point simply for the purpose of engaging in dialogue. But that is still self-refuting on your first point, which was my only purpose for commenting. I know I'm not going to change your mind -- nor do I hope to do so (I'm not living and dying by Lent!). What fascinates me are logical processes or the lack thereof, and what appear from my perspective to be clear misunderstandings of practices of The Church as they were intended to be; hence my response.

Former Evangelical said...

I hope you don’t mind a few thoughts about your post from a former Evangelical and now Orthodox Christian. I agree with you that the Roman Catholic practice of Lent is lacking in many respects. The RC has gradually watered down the original practice of Lent, especially since Vatican II, radically departing from the historic practice of the undivided Church of the first millennia – a practice, I would argue, that has been preserved in the Orthodox Church.

Your concerns about Lent reflect a very different view of how to live the Christian life – when compared to the Orthodox view. As an Evangelical, when I struggled with sin (which was basically all the time), the council I received over and over again from pastors of many different Evangelical traditions was simply to accept forgiveness from God through Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, believe you’re right with God, ask for His help, rejoice in these truths and try not to sin again – basically, “don’t worry about it. You’re forgiven. Just get your mind right.” The problem with this is that these things are true but they are just not the whole truth, Biblically and practically.

Throughout Scripture, we are taught that living the Christian life is actually extremely difficult. Just read the Gospels, how Christ talks over and over again about dying to yourself and the world, suffering for His sake, taking up your cross, walking the narrow & difficult path to the Kingdom, etc. He emphasizes living the Christian life (not just getting your mind right) and it is a tough path to walk.

The Apostle Paul and other NT writers also emphasize the same things. We hear things like: “I die daily”; “I am the chief of sinners”; “I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”; “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin”; “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord”; “Faith without works is dead.”

I’m not trying to make a comprehensive argument here but to simply point out that there is a tendency in Evangelicalism to say that the Christian life is not actually hard. In an effort to preserve the simplicity of the Gospel, all ideas of suffering, sacrifice, ascetic discipline and repentance have been mostly ignored or minimized (eg. just rejoice, be free, be happy).

So what does this have to do with Lent. In Orthodoxy, Lent is called the Great Fast. During the 40 days leading up to Holy Week and then during Holy Week itself, we abstain from eating all animal products and focus on a deep self-examination and repentance. We also place an increased emphasis on care for the poor and needy and the giving of alms (though we also do this throughout the year). Further, we eagerly anticipate the remembrance of Christ’s death, burial and then His glorious Resurrection which we celebrate with great joy.

Outside the Great Fast, Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (a practice witnessed to in the Didache, a Christian document from the first century), for forty days leading up to Christmas and during several other periods throughout the year. Christ said that His followers would fast when He was gone – leading to the question, “if one does not fast as a Christian, why not?”

In Orthodox spiritual practice, fasting, self-examination, continual repentance and works of mercy are the substance of the Christian life. These are not legalistic “obligations” but practices that, through 2000 years of wisdom taught to the Church by the lived experience of Christians throughout the world, the Church has learned that these ascetic disciplines are essential to victory over sin and human weakness – all through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Simply telling someone to believe they are forgiven lacks the power to transform their lives.

Forgive me as I have probably said too much. But this is an important and difficult topic.

By the way, my best friend attends your church and referred me to this blog post.

Rob Pochek said...

Thanks Former Evangelical. I appreciate your comments and sharing from the Orthodox tradition.

I agree with much of what you have shared. The Christian life is not a simple thing, nor is it "easy." No doubt about that.

Glad to know your friend attends FBC. I'd love to meet some time in the real world and chat about our glorious Lord and Savior.


Mr. Twisted said...

Former Evangelical just did a fantastic job of explaining what I found in my own journey from West to East. There is so much more to all of this than I had ever previously imagined, and the Eastern Fathers continue to guide me on a path towards an even deeper examination of all things related to The Way than I thought possible.

I am currently working through "The Lenten Spring" by Fr. Thomas Hopko and am, on a day to day basis, becoming acutely aware of Lent being a process of experience by which we live, at a more intense level than normal, the entirety of Scriptural narrative. Today's reading was on Adam and Eve and the movement away from God being at the heart of all sin. Lent is simply an act of reversing that, through the energies of the Holy Trinity, in the best way we possibly can.

Former Evangelical said...

Pastor Rob,

You are very gracious. If we ever are able to make it back to Charlottesville, I'd love to meet and visit with you.

Blessings as you seek to know Christ in His fullness.