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Repent of Lent: 
How Spiritual Disciplines Can Be Bad for Your Soul


Discussions about religious liberty seem to be cropping up everywhere these days.

Last year on Ash Wednesday, my daughter was one of the few kindergarteners at her Lutheran school who didn’t take the ashes.

As an aside, I love when five year olds show scruples. But virtue has its price, and peer-pressure rears its head early. My little girl was subsequently teased by a classmate — not one of the Lutherans, mind you — for her clean forehead, making her the latest (and perhaps the least) in a long line of martyrs to the Reformed faith.

This confessional kerfuffle had a happy ending, however. Lutheran justice was swift, religious liberty upheld, and the persecuting child prosecuted. The punishment fit the crime… I think they might have covered the inquisitor head to toe in ashes.

The Affair of the Sausages

Ironically, it was the preaching of Martin Luther that inspired one of the most famous incidents of Lenten non-observance, almost 500 years ago. In 1522, the “Affair of the Sausages” launched the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. Huldrych Zwingli, Pastor in Zurich, attended and later defended, even blessed, a Lenten feast of meaty sausages, verboten vittles during the obligatory fast.

Zwingli’s concern was twofold: Christian liberty, and Christian sanctification. Regarding liberty, since the Scriptures did not command fasting, Zwingli felt a Christian was free to fast, or free to not fast.

Jesus himself had declared all foods to be clean: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him” (Mark 7:18). For a church to forbid the eating of foods without biblical warrant was to play the Pharisee, to lay a burden upon a man’s conscience that God himself had not commanded. This would be in direct violation of Paul’s injunction 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” (Colossians 2:16).

Lent Today

Lenten observance today runs a wide gamut, from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches that maintain obligatory days of abstinence, to Protestant observances among Lutherans and Anglicans that are typically voluntary and evangelical. The Puritan wing of the Reformation typically eschews any recognition of the church calendar (and associated feasting and fasting) while some continental Reformed voluntarily mark the evangelical feast days of our Lord’s life with special services, and no more.

My sense, however, is that many evangelical Christians who long eschewed Lenten observance such as ashes and fasting as mere external religion are increasingly warming to the practice. Perhaps this is under the influence of the emergent church (remember them?), or just a general increase in religious eclecticism and increasing mobility between faith communities.

It also seems as though there is a growing cultural awareness of “giving up” things for Lent. Lent has a certain cache; It’s cool, like a cleanse, only involving God, and prayer. Our tolerant society broadly embraces asceticism, at least the temporary sort that doesn’t hurt too much, or just enough whip your body or soul into shape. Lent is mainstream enough even in our post-Christian culture for there to be water-cooler humor about “giving up fasting for Lent.”

But Does It Work?

Lost amid the ashes and sausages, King cakes and shrove pancakes — can’t forget about the pancakes — is Zwingli’s deeper concern about the nature of Christian sanctification. As a cradle Catholic who’s done the ashes, and a former evangelical whose fasted to the point of fainting, at this point in my life I find myself increasingly concerned that Lenten abstinence, obligatory or not, can in fact be bad for one’s soul.

Note that I am not a Puritan who is opposed to all observance of the church calendar, nor do I deny the value of learning practical piety from Christian tradition. With Zwingli, I affirm the Christian’s freedom to fast, or not to fast, and thus obligatory observance of Rome and the East remains beyond the Protestant pale. Yet I believe that this tradition — the spiritual discipline of seasonal fasting and abstinence — is more often than not detrimental to our faith.

Now, I fully recognize that this flies in the face of that most indubitable evidence of modern religious life — personal experience. If you’ve read this far, you will probably attest on a stack of Bibles how much value you have personally derived from fasting, and the proof is in the pudding. If this post had comments, well, forget about it.

I certainly don’t doubt this experience, and in fact, I find that it actually confirms my argument from Scripture. The spiritual-minded experience fasting positively because it conforms to our default position about spiritual matters. Deep down, we are all born as Pharisees, believing that sin and salvation are a matter of discipline, something within our control. The ascetic way of the penitential partakes of the natural religion of the natural man, not the revealed religion of the Gospel. Which is one reason why fasting is so widespread in most every world religion.

Back to Mark 7, where Jesus hit the nail on the head. We all desperately want to believe that sin is outside of us, something that goes into us and defiles us. That it is a particular act, or behavior, or excess, that we can readily regulate and control should we choose. Though Jesus never sinned, he became sin on our behalf, and understood sin better than we do, and boy did he understand the sin of Phariseeism.

In direct contrast to the Pharisee, Jesus taught that sin is a matter of the heart. It is not what we do or eat, but who we are:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20 – 23)

The problem with even the evangelical, self-imposed fast is that it creates a little law for us to obey, a rule that is within our reach. It is, not surprisingly, a law of our own making, for the law of God — love God and neighbor with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength — is impossible to obey, even for a moment. If we fulfill our personal law, we have confirmed ourselves in the conceit that we aren’t so badly off after all.

Remembering the Passion of Christ

The standard reply, of course, is that the penitence of Lent is not about scoring brownie points, but about meditating on the passion of Christ, and joining in his suffering. The ashes are applied in the shape of a cross to remind us of the cross, and the death we must each die to our sins and our bodily passions.

Two problems present themselves with this view. First, it underestimates our sin. Remember, Jesus listed pride and deceit as two of the things that bubble up from within our hearts. As sinners, we can’t help taking pride in the things we do to give our salvation a little push, so engaging in such self-prescribed spiritual disciplines just gives us more sin — the sin of pride — to repent of.

Second, and more fundamentally, is the uniqueness and purpose of Christ’s sufferings. Jesus didn’t die to purify his own soul, but ours. He fasted for forty days in the wilderness on our behalf, so we wouldn’t have to; not as a model, but as a substitute. His passion was not a discipline that made his heart pure in its love for his Father, it was the price to be paid for our sins, and he paid it in full.

Christians are called to suffer as Christ suffered, that is, with the same purpose. We are called to suffer not for ourselves, but for others. When we engage in fasting in his image, but for the purpose of purifying ourselves, we invert that image. Such penitence is ultimately focused on self, not on the other.

Jesus’s passion was an act of love for us: “We love, because he first loved us.” We needn’t invent any obligation not laid upon us by the Lord, who summarized all the Law and Prophets (and ceremonies and fasts) of the Old Testament with this simple command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The most powerful reminders and signs and seals of that love, are the ones Jesus gave us: The preaching of Christ crucified, and the water and bread and wine of his holy sacraments.

You are free indeed to fast, or not to fast. This year, consider repenting of Lent. Prepare for Easter by loving your neighbor until it hurts, and embracing the love — and forgiveness — of Christ at Calvary. Trust me, you’ll need it.

Brian Lee is the Pastor of Christ Reformed Church, in Washington, DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood.