One of my earliest memories of Lenten disciplines is from when I was just seven or eight years old. My parents asked us children what we were planning to give up for 40 days, and being the selfless little Christian that I was, I decided to give up playing computer games.
Now, in the era of Xbox, Wii and countless other advanced game systems, a month off the computer may not seem like a huge commitment, but at that age, I was a full-blown computer game addict. I was quite proud of my bravery, but it lasted less than a week.
The Saturday morning after Ash Wednesday, the need to play Age Of Empires or Backyard Football was just too overwhelming. My parents had not yet awoken, so instead of risking being caught in the act, I scribbled a note explaining that I was “really sorry, but I just wanted to play my games really bad,” and slid it under their door. When my dad came into the room, I assumed I was in big trouble, and naturally, started tearing up, repenting for my transgressions.
See what a good Christian conscience I had? However, my dad’s reaction surprised me. Smiling, he did not rebuke me for my sins, but rather explained to me that observing the season of Lent, which mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness resisting Satan’s temptation, is something we choose to do, not something we are commanded to do. This fact remains lost on many, as Lent, from my experience, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts among Christians.
I am fully used to people misunderstanding Lent’s purpose. I grew up in, and continue to attend, Anglican churches that consistently observe the cycle of different church seasons: Pentecost, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension and so on. We didn’t sing hymns like “We Three Kings” in December, for that’d simply be ridiculous; “We Three Kings” is an Epiphany hymn (and, quite frankly, not a good one at that…but I digress).
From a young age, my family has practiced Lenten disciplines, and it wasn’t until we moved to South Carolina around my high school days that I first encountered people who weren’t familiar with Lent, Ash Wednesday or even Good Friday. I suppose Southern Baptist churches don’t exactly place the same emphasis on church seasons; I remember looking befuddled at a friend of mine who asked if I “was doin’ Lent.” I proceeded to explain that you don’t “do Lent,” you observe it.
Even at Calvin, I discovered a surprisingly little amount of knowledge of or support for Lenten disciplines (please keep in mind this is not an indictment on those that don’t know or practice Lent, rather just a discovery that surprised me.) I recall dinner table conversations amongst people who didn’t know what it was, or thought it was “just a Catholic thing,” or didn’t get the point of doing it. I still have these conversations fairly regularly, and that brings me to my overarching belief.
People have different reasons for practicing Lenten disciplines. From interactions I’ve had or witnessed, I’ve found that many people, both among those that do observe Lent and those that do not, believe the purpose is to become closer to God. There is undoubtedly value in that reasoning. However, I don’t think this is necessary the sole motive of observing Lent.
For instance, the Catholic tradition is to fast or give up different luxuries as a form of remorse for sinful nature. Other reasons exist, too: my friend who gives up sweets for Lent does this to emphasize her desire to grow in health physically as well as emotionally and spiritually. My dad gives up coffee, and I give up Facebook. Do either of us feel closer to God, per se, because of it? Probably not. My dad is constantly grumpy, and I am constantly agonizing over what crazy development I’m missing on the Internet. But to us, it shows that we, like Jesus (albeit on a much smaller scale), have the self-restraint to refrain from the temptation of indulging in everyday, unnecessary things.
All this to say, I understand the oft-cited view that Lenten disciplines are unnecessary. I don’t believe anyone will think less of you as a Christian if you do not partake, nor should they think this. However, to disregard Lent as “pointless” is unfair. I, and many others, have found true value in preparing for Easter by spending the preceding season free of certain indulgences and luxuries.
This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the views of Calvin Chimes or Calvin College.