When Nickey and I got married, we wanted to establish some “traditions” in our family. Both of us didn’t grow up with a lot of family traditions, but we thought it would be important in order to create meaningful experiences together as a family.
So far the only tradition that has stuck is our Christmas holiday tradition. Every year soon after Thanksgiving, our entire family spends a few hours putting up the Christmas tree and all our decorations. We listen to our Christmas songs playlist that day and almost every day until Christmas day. That’s also when I begin to think about the gifts that I would like to give my wife and kids for Christmas.
This tradition accomplishes a few objectives. First, it prepares me to get into the right frame of mind to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ- not just for a day but for an entire season. Second, it gives my family a point of reference in our lives: to think back with gratitude at everything God has done in order to have proper perspective for the present and future. And third, it helps me practically think through how to make it a meaningful Christmas day for my family (e.g. thoughtful gifts, specific plans).
This is why traditions are important and edifying for people. Although traditions can run the risk of becoming boring, meaningless, burdensome, or a hindrance to progress, the benefits of tradition make it worthwhile to hold onto the most important of them.
“A Church Thing”
Lent is a tradition that has been practiced in various forms (not necessarily how it looks today) since as early as the second century. The practice of Lent as we know it now was instituted in the sixth century by Gregory the Great. Today, both Catholics and some Protestants actively practice Lent; it has gained traction among many groups of Evangelicals.
Our church observes Lent for the same reasons it has been practiced throughout history. It is a way to prepare ourselves for celebrating Easter, a day commemorating Jesus Christ’s resurrection. But to remember the resurrection would be one-dimensional without also remembering Jesus Christ’s cross and suffering. In fact, the cross and the resurrection go hand-in-hand with respect to Christian faith.
It also gives us a point of reference to reflect upon the gracious work and provision of God in our lives, which in turn gives us proper perspective to trust and live obediently to Him in the present and future. Thus, Lent is a way to practically think through how Easter can be truly meaningful for ourselves and others, instead of an empty religious holiday.
We also follow a general cycle every ministry year with three “terms.” The first term (Sept-Dec) is focused mainly on “gathering” people together into biblical communities. The focus of our second term (Jan-April) is “growing”: taking steps forward in our spiritual maturity. The third term (May-July) is focused on “going” out and sharing the Gospel. In God’s provision, much of our “growing” season happens during Lent.
“A Grace Thing”
I want to be very clear here: observing Lent is NOT a way of earning any merit from God, so we really must consciously deprogram that tendency out of our hearts and minds. The riches of God’s mercy, grace, and love are poured onto believers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (see Eph 2:4). Imagine this to be like a powerful waterfall, with us holding out a little plastic cup to take in as much as we can. The way to experience the refreshing joy of this waterfall more is to get a bigger container.
This is how spiritual disciplines need to be seen. Often we regard spiritual disciplines like Bible intake, prayer, and fasting as marks of being “holy” when actually they do not increase our status before God whatsoever. What they do, however, is put us in the place to receive God’s grace more. So when we practice these spiritual disciplines personally, we in effect get a bigger container to catch more of God’s grace.
So training in these spiritual disciplines, in order to experience more of God’s mercy, grace, and love is of utmost value to to what Paul wrote to his disciple in 1 Timothy 4:7-8 (ESV): “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
There is personal training such as meditation on Scripture and daily prayer; there is also corporate training such as communion and weekly worship services. While observing Lent certainly has a personal element to it, when doing it together as a congregation it is also an opportunity for mutual edification, sharpening, and growth.
“A Heart Thing”
What does this “training” exactly do inside us? Romans 12:9 (ESV) summarizes my point here. It says, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”
On one level, training is learning how to fight sin in our hearts. With the power of Christ inside us, we as believers can courageously confront our sinfulness and grow a strong hatred (yes, that strong of a word!) of sin. On another level, training is learning how to fight for our love for Jesus. As God gives us the grace to progressively kill the sin in our hearts, he also gives us the grace to love Jesus more, as we remember his cross, passion, resurrection, and mission.
So don’t let Lent become a meaningless tradition or ritual- it is a season for us to nurture in our hearts a genuine love for God! Lent can be a difficult season because God often shows us the ugliness of our hearts (thus dispelling any notion of our own righteousness); but it can also be the sweetest of seasons as we drink of God’s grace in deeper ways.
Referring back to 1 Timothy 4:7-8, there is also the “bigger picture” here about a person’s faith journey. This sort of training that refines the heart is what helps God’s people to be ready for the final judgment to come and enables us to persevere to the very end.
“A Shared Thing”
Let me repeat a phrase I just mentioned three paragraphs ago: he also gives us the grace to love Jesus more, as we remember his cross, passion, resurrection, and mission. The connection to Lent and evangelism is that the life of Christ (his passion) leads us to the cross of Christ (his salvation), which leads us to the resurrection of Christ (his victory), which leads us to his mission (his purpose).
In other words, the more highly you value Jesus Christ, the more you will value making Him known to people who do not trust and worship Him. The fruit of Lent and Easter is the preaching of the Gospel through our words and actions.
This year’s theme for all our churches is “Be the Link.” It means joining into our Father’s joy by proclaiming this Message to others and connecting them to Jesus. During this Lent season, let’s link our friends and family who do not follow Jesus into our prayer lives, asking for God to reveal himself to them. Let’s link them into our lives, so we show them and share with them who Jesus is. Let’s link them into our church and LIFE group, so they can eyewitness God at work in others’ lives.
The image of a chain is helpful. God is responsible for saving people and we don’t know when that will happen. But when we see our role as a “link” somewhere on that chain that ends in a person’s salvation, we can know that our ministries to people will not be in vain.
So Now What?
So what do we do during Lent? It is simply to fast from “something(s)” in order to feast on Jesus Christ. Pay attention to the order here, as I think this is how we should process this:
- First, what are some ways that you can make space in your life to “feast” more on Jesus? It can be anything, but some examples are committing to pray and read the Bible during your lunch hour, memorizing a particular passage of Scripture, or studying a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) with another person.
- Second, what are some things in your life that you can remove or fast from (to abstain) that will create that physical or spiritual space to be made in order to feast on Christ? Some examples of this are fasting from sweets, meat, social media, or TV/movies.
- Share with your LIFE group members in order to keep each other accountable and help each other grow spiritually this season. Share how you can work together to “be the link” to connect your friends and family to Jesus.
- Take bold measures to “be the link” by praying for specific non-believing friends and family, investing in your relationships with them, looking for opportunities to share who Jesus is and what he’s doing in your life, and inviting them to various LIFE group and church gatherings.