I grew up in what many call a “low” church tradition. Besides Christmas and Easter, we did not follow the rhythms of any traditional annual liturgical calendar. I thought that sacred seasons like Lent were only practiced by more “rigid” and “ritualistic” denominations. For my classmates attending such churches, Lent was a time to complain about all the things they wanted but couldn’t have because they had to “give it up for Lent.” Consequently, the practice held little attraction for me. I enjoyed the spiritual freedom of eating, drinking, and doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.
It was only after moving to Singapore that I began to hear and think more seriously about the meaning, practices, and significance of Lent. I learned that because Easter is celebrated toward the beginning of spring, the word “Lent” comes from the old English word that means to “lengthen,” referring to the time when the days getting longer in the northern hemisphere. In addition, I realized that Lent is linked not only to the Easter event, but also to the 40 days of fasting Jesus experienced in the wilderness at the onset of His active earthly ministry.
I also began to appreciate how Lent was really a privilege and gracious invitation to grow nearer to Jesus Christ through acts of identification and participation in His sacrifice and sufferings on my behalf. Jesus willingly left His heavenly position of power and prestige to live the humiliating life of every man (Phil 2:5-8; Heb 2:14-18), endure hardship, temptation, and weakness (Luke 4:1-13), and ultimately give His life as a faultless and sufficient sacrifice for sin (2 Cor 5:21).
In giving up His life, Jesus simultaneously gave us His moral righteousness, divine position, and eternal life, by forgiving us, raising us from the dead, and seating us with Him in the heavenly places the moment we placed our faith in Him (Eph 2:4-9). As we think deeply upon this unwarranted kindness and grace of God in Christ, we should be overwhelmed by His undeserved, sacrificial, and immeasurable love. It should compel us to ask, “How can I thank you, Lord, and how can I more deeply appreciate all that Christ has done for me?”
Leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter, Lent calls us to a time of voluntary hardship, reflection, and thanksgiving to help us to enter more fully into His sacrificial life, humiliating death, and glorious resurrection. We do this in two primary ways: giving up and giving out. By giving up, we willingly sacrifice something important and pleasurable to us; a beloved food, a favorite TV show, a special drink, an entertaining activity like being on social media. This “What?” must be decided upon between you and the Lord, but the idea is to suffer the loss of something you love and enjoy as a concrete reminder of all that Christ lovingly sacrificed for you.
But Lent is not meant to be merely a call to give up. Just as Christ gave up many things, He also gave out—offering us forgiveness, holiness, honor, hope, and eternal life through His giving up. Thus, Lent also calls us to give out in our giving up. As we sacrifice something for the season of Lent, we are also encouraged to think of it as a time to give to others what we don’t typically or easily give. It might be the offer kindness and forgiveness to someone you would rather remain angry with. It might be the gift of food or drink or money or time or service. Again, the “What?” is something to discern from the Lord. But as you live in sacrifice through Lent, you are also called to live in generosity and joyful thanksgiving for all that God has given you by sharing those gracious blessings with others.
In the end, there is a certain mystery to Lent. When done for the wrong reasons, it can become prideful, misdirected, and nothing more than a dead or legalistic ritual, devoid of any real meaning or benefit. But when done with the right attitude through the power and love of His Holy Spirit, profound spiritual growth and Christian maturity results, and God is both pleased and glorified.