Do you enjoy traditions? Or are you a rebel? I have many friends who grew up in progressive churches, seeker friendly churches, the normal protestant church, and in their maturity have found a beauty and comfort in tradition and liturgy which marks many of the classical traditions. Likewise, I have many friends who grew up knowing only routine and structure and find joy in the freedom which is in the protestant, non-denominational church. I personally think this is a reflection of our individual personalities and values. Many of us who struggle with legalism find comfort in tradition, but in fighting our temptations throw it out as evil. Many of us who struggle with discipline enjoy the freedom and non-conformism of today’s Church habits, but in seeking to grow in maturity can hold ourselves to non-Biblical habits. Traditions [of the Church] are not in-and-of themselves evil. Most were developed with strong conviction and desire to honor God and help a congregation remember and glorify Him.
One such tradition is Lent. It was developed as a discipline to commemorate the incarnation of Christ and to follow His example of fasting in the wilderness for forty days before He began His earthly ministry. It begins on Ash Wednesday,the day after Epiphany (or Fat Tuesday), celebrating Jesus specifically, and offers a season of introspection to repent from any sin and to prepare the believer to celebrate Easter: the date on which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of salvation through faith in His atonement.
It is a little strange in its execution, however. Jesus did not eat anything for forty days or nights. It has evolved and varied over the generations, with some ancient traditions abstaining from all food until late in the day, some allowing only bread to be consumed throughout the season, and some abstaining from only meat (and at times a variety of definitions of meat). Today many people will choose a vice from which to abstain, rather than limiting their diet. The goal, in each of these endeavors, is to replace time spent on eating or on a specific vice with prayer, repentance and giving back.
Fasting is indeed a spiritual discipline. Jesus encouraged it, the apostles practiced it, and we neglect it.
Biblical fasting has a greater depth than the traditional understanding of Lent. Jesus taught (quoting Moses),
“MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.”
– Matt 4.4
Jesus went into the desert and did not eat or drink for forty days. The human body is not capable of or created to survive that long without nourishment. Jesus, in His example of fasting, exemplified in dramatic form that God can and does sustain our bodies: not merely food. Biblical fasting is not simply reassigning time for prayer, but it is conditioning the heart and soul to rely on God for life. For everything. Food alone is how humanity sustains itself (in worldly understanding), and to give up food is to practice a faith. It is putting our trust in God for our very survival.
Biblical fasting is also intended to be between the believer and God. Jesus taught that we should not let others know that we are fasting, because it draws attention to the discipline and gives the faster reason to boast. Fasting is an intimate discipline between sustainer and the sustained, leading to deeper faith, repentance and love. By announcing it to the world we rob ourselves of the blessing that can be attained through the discipline (Matt 6.16-17).
The traditions that are arising of setting aside time for prayer and removing a vice from our lives is a good thing. But let us be acutely aware that we are not practicing Biblical fasting. Lent is a man-made tradition that is not an instruction from Scripture. So if we decide to set aside forty days of intentional Spirituality and self-deprivation, it can be a good thing but it is not required for salvation or Spiritual maturity. If you set aside social media for the next six weeks and refocus that time towards prayer and repentance, you will meet God and you will grow. If you set aside social media and fill up your time with another hobby or activity, you will not meet God. You might realize time wasted, but you will not blossom in your relationship with God. If you choose to fast Biblically, remember to not make it public knowledge. Trust in God for your actual life, by putting aside food. Turn your attention to prayer, self examination and repentance and you will meet Him in a fresh way.
For those of us who bristle at the very mention of the season of Lent, let us remember that Spiritual disciplines are healthy things taught by Jesus Himself, and having a time set aside every year for Spiritual discipline and introspection is a good thing, when approached with a heart that wants to know and honor God. No, Jesus did not declare Lent as a tradition for us to keep, but if someone desires to know God more intimately and decides to follow Jesus’ example and instruction of fasting once a year, do not begrudge him. Perhaps you should consider your own personal Spiritual disciplines and see if you have room to grow! You will not earn your salvation or favor with God through traditions, but you can get to know Him more and grow Spiritually if you will die to yourself and rely on Him for your life.
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
– 1 Cor 11.2
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
– 2 Thess 2.15
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
– 2 Thess 3.6