Matt’s discussion of the Radicals and their revolution against comfortable and convenient Christianity has emerged, perhaps fittingly, during the liturgical season of Lent. The annual forty-day fast has always focused on the sacrifice inherent to the Christian call. Therefore, it should be no surprise that many of the same believers latching onto David Platt & Co.’s message have also begun to incorporate Lenten fasts into their worship practices. This devotional expression, long a hallmark of more liturgical churches, is now a growing trend among low-church Evangelicals.
The Evangelicalism of my parents’ generation lumped Lenten fasting together with saying the Rosary as the dead liturgy of a works-based religion. In other words, they didn’t do Lent. But now many of my friends, including lots of the fine folks here at Mere-O do. The question “What are you giving up for Lent?” is as common at hip church plants as skinny jeans and references to UFC fights. It is so cool that the really cool kids are giving up the practice in order to stay ahead of the trend.
The whole fad has me thinking: was the old-fashioned Evangelical opposition to Lenten observance just one more relic of an irrational anti-Papistry, or is there some real wisdom in abstaining from abstaining?
The Affair of the Sausages
Our parents weren’t the first Protestants to resist Lent. The suspicion of Lent emerged at the very dawn of the Reformation. In fact, less than five years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, an intentional violation of the Lenten fast was the event that brought the Reformation to Switzerland. Zurich pastor Huldrych Zwingli had been teaching on Christian liberty and his congregant, Christoph Froschauer, had just published a new translation of the Pauline Epistles. To celebrate the publication, Froschauer shared two sausages with his employees. This violated the terms of the church’s fasting requirements, which at that point completely forbade the eating of flesh meat.
At that time, the secular authorities enforced church doctrine. Froschauer was arrested. Zwingli subsequently defended Froschauer’s action as a proper exercise of Christian liberty. Roman Catholic authorities were not immediately persuaded. The citizens of Zurich were; the following year the city became officially Protestant.
In the following decades, English Puritans went even further in their opposition to feast days not commanded by scripture. Their opposition culminated in a 1647 parliamentary act abolishing Lent as well as the rest of the liturgical calendar:
Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding. (link)
The Puritans banned all of these holidays because they found them unsupported by Scripture and to be the occasion of superstition. By the latter, they meant that common people would confuse the feast and fasts for the essence of Christianity and would mistake the simple Gospel. This concern also drove Zwingli’s opposition. In his sermon defending Froschauer, he noted that “simple people” may get the impression that if they comply with the Church’s Lenten commands they may think that they are good for the rest of the year. Yet, in truth, “one should at all time confess God, live piously, and do no more than we think necessary in the fast” (Zwingli, p. 107).
Despite all of this concern, many of the denominations founded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continued to observe Lent in some form. While no Anglican, Lutheran, or Methodist church commands a flesh-meat fast on Fridays, they conduct Ash Wednesday services and commend that each member individually select some desirable thing to give up during the season.
The Biblical Doctrine of Fasting
With this history in mind, the question is whether Evangelicals should follow their high church Protestant brethren in adopting the practice of the Lenten fast. First, this fast must be Biblical. Fasting is discussed throughout the scriptures and while its use is commended to believers, it is subject to several limiting instructions. Believers are to fast without disfiguring their faces as the hypocrites do (Matthew 6:16) and without lying in sackcloth and ashes (Isaiah 58:5). Abstinence is counseled “for a limited time” in order for Christians to devote themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5).
When it comes to seasonal fasting based on a liturgical calendar, the most pertinent passage is clearly Colossians 2. Paul is responding to a challenge from the Judaizers to the unity of the church. The Judiazers were insisting that all Christians, including Gentiles, follow Jewish traditions and festivals. Paul disagrees, encouraging the Gentiles to “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism…” (v. 16-18).
Paul not only maintains that Christians do not need to follow Jewish traditions, but also asserts that those practices while seeming to make a person more holy, do not actually do so.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (v. 20-23)
Read that last line again—no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. The point here is that Biblical fasting is not some kind of Buddhist self-improvement project. Giving up chocolate won’t do anything to increase your holiness, and it won’t cure your sugar addiction or gluttony problem. Indeed, the only Biblical reason for asceticism is for a time of focused prayer.
Moreover, the Bible seems to indicate two things from which to abstain: food and sex. Neither of these things are inherently sinful (although some medieval Christians were a bit hazy on the latter subject). They are necessities. By contrast, fasting from unrighteousness is always a good idea. Christians do not need a special “season” for that.
Peculiarly, the popular candidates for modern Lenten fasts are luxury items, not necessities. Deserts and adult beverages lead the way. And, in our hyper-connected world, abstaining from Facebook and Twitter is becoming common as well.
The unfortunate effect of these choices is that innocent pleasures gain suspect connotations. Giving up food altogether models the truth that believers are not created to live by bread alone. By parallel, giving up a luxury like cheese cake models that believers are not created to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation. No one would own that conclusion, but that is the logical implication. Christians know that they are made to enjoy God’s creation. So why is Lenten fasting so trendy?
The Cultural Meaning of Participation in Lent
There are probably dozens of reasons for this fad amongst Evangelicals, not the least of which is their liturgical inferiority complex. Namely, my church lacks sublime expressions of holiness so I’m going to adopt beautiful aspects from older traditions.
That impulse works in concert with more substantive desires such as identifying with Christ’s suffering. Saying something like, “By denying myself coffee for Lent, I am reminded of how much Christ gave up for me because of how hard it is for me to give up something small like a cup of coffee.” The heart of this desire is good; this impulse is one of wanting to understand how he suffered, bled, and died. It’s the idea of walking the Via Delarosa. The problem is that giving up coffee or any other luxury doesn’t come close to forty lashes or any other aspect of Christ’s sufferings.
Folks also believe that Lenten fasting will help them build virtue through self-denial. In this way, Lent has become the spiritual cousin of the New Year’s Resolution. In light of the Colossians passage noted above, Evangelicals ought to know that fasting won’t make them better. The wider American culture doesn’t. A friend of mine was recently asked the What are you giving up for Lent? question by two of his non-believing co-workers. He was not observing the fast, but both of them were! From my experience, it almost seems as though modern spiritual-not-religious people have constructed a Lent which fulfills the Reformers’ worst nightmare. Self-improvement is the watchword, not humility towards God.
Accordingly, unless fasting Evangelicals are extremely careful, their fasts will be interpreted as endeavors for greater sanctification. Why would that be a bad thing? Because Lent is before Easter. An observer unacquainted with the Gospel would gather from that symbolism that we believe our part in salvation is prior to God’s part in our salvation. The precedence is precisely reversed. If we were to design an Evangelical church calendar (as Matt once suggested), we would certainly place the High Day of Christ’s Work before the period of emphasis on the believer’s sanctification; Redemption Accomplished before Redemption Applied.
After all of these historical, biblical and cultural reflections, I cannot make a simple conclusion like Lent is always wrong. It has surely been practiced by sincere believers for century upon century. But, if Evangelicals are to maintain their fidelity to the Scriptures and wisely discern their historical and cultural context they will adopt this practice only with the greatest of care.