The following list (drawn from our book, Lent: The Journey from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week) is not exhaustive, but consider these Lenten lessons.
Lent reminds us that we are sinners and we need to repent.
We are sinners and we need to repent—even after we are baptized, saved, forgiven, and healed. Yes, we continue to be a part of this fallen world and to make our contributions to it. Forgiveness from God—total forgiveness—doesn’t mean that we are already perfected. He forgives us because he knows we will need it continually in this fallen world. And if you do not think believing Christians sin, then you must not be reading the news.
The model for all prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, itself teaches us to pray for forgiveness every day, and the biblical epistles are full of admonitions to continually repent. So Lent is a yearly journey—as we walk the path together as a Church from Ash Wednesday to Easter—that reminds us, humbles us, and takes us back to the foot of the cross.
But it doesn’t do this to condemn us. We repent to be free, to be honest with God, to be enabled to accept his forgiveness one more time. We cannot repent unless we are already assured of his love and grace.
Lent reminds us that we cannot earn God’s forgiveness.
God forgives us by grace!
Lent is not about reminding God that he should forgive us, or trying to please him enough to forgive us, or to prove something to God. Instead, it’s about reminding us that we worship a God who loved us enough to take away our sins, and who always will.
Every Lent we take up disciplines. We show our repentance by receiving the ashes, by our prayers, and by our desire to seek reconciliation with others. We also give things up, fast, and take up spiritual disciplines.
But we do not take on these disciplines to prove that we are righteous people. They are not a tool for healing really, but for diagnosis. The medicine of the Gospel is God’s grace. The Law is the diagnostic tool.
So in Lent we take up these fasts and disciplines to be better able to listen to the Holy Spirit. To see ourselves as we are. To know our own weaknesses and to observe our temptations. As we do so, we pray for God to reveal his grace to us in a deeper way.
Unless we see our symptoms and sickness, we do not seek a cure. The Lenten disciplines do not take too long to reveal something to us, and when they do we are supposed to rest in the knowledge of God’s love and grace.
Every Lent, in each and every way, we fail to keep our disciplines in some major or minor way. This is a great opportunity to be reminded that failure is the point. In other words, if I finish Lent with a greater awareness of my own failings, and so am more aware of my need for God’s grace and the forgiveness of others, then my Lent has been a holy one.
By the third week, or even the second week, of Lent, most of us have stopped feeling like Lent is a “cool ancient tradition.” This is the time when it starts feeling like a real bummer. We want to avoid feeling gloomy, because that’s not really the point of Lent, but unavoidably it happens. This too is a spiritual discipline. Walking through Lent is not about our own fortitude or about feeling “awesome” about it. It is about just doing it. Just walking through those days on the calendar called Lent and seeing what there is to see through the experience.
The beautiful thing about time is that it marches on, despite us. We do not make Easter arrive. We do not “earn” Easter by keeping a perfect Lent. It arrives.
St. John Chrysostom preached a famous Easter sermon about this fact around 400 A.D.,
Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary from fasting?
Let them now receive their due!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their reward.
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the feast!
Those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed.
Those who have tarried until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
even as to those who toiled from the beginning.
To one and all the Lord gives generously.
Easter arrives regardless of how successful we are at keeping Lent. Thanks be to God!
Lent reminds us that the feast is the main point.
Lent is a fast that is observed to prepare us for Easter. Because fasting, taking up disciplines, and focusing on repentance and self-denial can be very dramatic, we can make the mistake of thinking that Lent is about fasting. But the fast is not the main point, the feast is.
We were not made for fasting, we were made for feasting. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, to eat of anything in the garden they wanted, to enjoy his presence and each other. They were made for feasting and enjoying life. The only “no” commandment was to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Everything else was “yes”!
But since the Great Rebellion, the Fall, we do not handle feasting well. Humanity tends to over-indulge, become addicted, feel guilty, steal our food from others, etc. Because of this, we start to think that feasting, enjoyment of life, and celebration must be bad things. We perceive that fasting is true to the spiritual life, but feasting and enjoyment are contradictory to them. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we fast so that we can be prepared to properly feast! Fasting is the prelude; feasting is the main event.
Jesus said this clearly when he was questioned about fasting by the disciples of John. They wanted to know why he and his disciples were not fasting. He replied, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” In other words, when he returns, we will not need to fast anymore. We’ll be feasting in a great marriage supper. He says in Matthew 22 that the Kingdom of God can be compared to a wedding feast. Our fasting is preparation; it is part of this temporary phase of life. Feasting is what we are really learning to do. Feasting is our future and our life with God now. He created us to feast!
Listen to the prophet Jeremiah describing God’s restoration of Israel, a foreshadowing of all of the People of God in eternity:
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the Lᴏʀᴅ. (Jeremiah 31:13–14, ESV)
And at the end of the Bible, when the New Heaven and Earth is described, the people are celebrating. They are enjoying God and each other and life. That’s our destiny, and we will know how to really feast then. Fasting is only a temporary part of our life in this fallen world, albeit a necessary one, which is preparatory for the Great Feast.
So during Lent, we fast to prepare for Easter, a parallel to our lives of waiting for Christ’s return. We do not eat cake every day of the week before our birthday. This is not because eating cake is wrong, but because we want to celebrate with enjoyment and appreciation. Cake is a special thing to be enjoyed and rightly prepared for by waiting until the proper time.
When we fast during Lent, we are not avoiding certain foods because they are inherently harmful or indulgent, but because food is sacred and special. We are preparing for the feast by reserving its special elements for the feast itself. Our fast reminds us what hunger and need feel like, so that when we feast we will know that it is God who fills us up. Part of that preparation is the Sunday feasts. The Sunday feasts in Lent are mini-Easters, celebrations of Christ’s resurrection on the Lord’s Day, so they are times to celebrate, to enjoy life, food, and fellowship. They are not moments of guilty indulgence; instead, they are a glimpse into the future life we are assured of in Christ. We need those weekly reminders of the future feast, even in the midst of our fast time.
Ultimately, Lent is an especially appropriate time to renew our repentance and faith as we cling to the good news that Jesus Christ—our crucified, risen, and exalted Savior—is Lord.
To learn more about Lent, check out our book: Lent: The Journey from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week, edited by Greg Goebel and Joshua Steele, with a Foreword by Tish Harrison Warren.