Lent, repentance, fasting and the difference

Lent worldIt always seems to come around a little quicker than I would hope and with my preparation lacking, but we are once again in the season of Lent and I notice various people are giving up various things once again.

If you are still pondering what to do this Lent, I try not to tell people what they should or should not give up for Lent, but I think there are a couple of principles to bear in mind.

Firstly, Lent is about temporarily abstaining from something in order to create time and space to increase our focus on God and ultimately increase our well-being. But it’s not just about having more time for prayer (by doing less). It’s also about a sense of sacrifice. Sacrificing something for the duration of Lent is an opportunity to consider what I am allowing in my life to have mastery. 

In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, St Paul wrote (in chapters 6 and 10) about how all things are permissible, but not all are beneficial. He said “everything is permissible for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor 6.12).

Lent is a good opportunity each year for that spiritual healthcheck that asks “what am I at risk of being mastered by?” “What do I need to ensure means less to me than God does?”

You won’t find many people venerating wooden idols these days, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t in danger of idolatry. Work, food, sex, relationships, a sport or a hobby, alcohol, gambling, anything really, even church or a particular way of worshipping can become an idol if it becomes more to us than our relationship with God. Lent gives us a chance to reset.

Second, abstaining or fasting from something in Lent is about giving up something neutral or good, as a sacrifice. You can’t really “fast” from anything that’s actually a sin. Giving up gossip or complaint or lying is good, but that is not fasting. That is repentance, and is something we should be doing all-year round anyway.

Think about it from the other end. You get to Easter and can stop fasting, so you celebrate our Lord’s passion and resurrection by resuming the gluttony, or lust, or pride? No. Doesn’t sound very appropriate does it? Those are not the things to ‘fast’ from. We just need to repent of those regularly and ask God’s help to live differently all year round.

It is true that we can start to drift, and sometimes our sins and our idols come together as one and Lent becomes a good reminder to repent and live life as God would ask of us. But repenting of sin in Lent is additional to any fast you undertake.

So! If you’re still wondering what to do, think about time you can set aside, think about something you’d be comfortable joyfully resuming at Easter, but which it might be useful to you to temporarily step back from and reevaluate your relationship with, and don’t confuse your Lenten sacrifice with our daily need to repent of our sins and live for Christ.

Rev David Green

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