The Freedom of Lent
One of the common beliefs among evangelical pastors is that Lent is legalistic. The word “Lent” conjures associations of petty and pointless acts of self-denial, like giving up chocolate or meat while conspicuously wearing ashes on your forehead. As a pastor myself, I know the dangers of legalism: spiritual pride, self-hatred and missing out on the freedom of the Gospel. So I’m on guard against the seduction of works-righteousness among my flock, reminding them often that their union with Christ is a free gift of grace.
Yet as a pastor who loves the Gospel and my congregation, I’ve found that a Christ-centered approach to Lent offers freedom, not legalism, to the people I’m entrusted to lead.
Lent offers us freedom from the tyranny of over-consumption. Our culture has distorted the concept of “freedom” so that we believe it means a satisfaction of any craving of the body. This has left us addicted, depressed and spiritually numb. The lesser stories of unbounded pleasure, comfort and entertainment have captured our imaginations and enslaved us with new habits. We’re so full of the junk food of our culture that we cannot metabolize the feast on our Gospel plates.
During the 40 days of Lent, we devote our bodies and souls to Christ as we fast, pray and exercise generosity with our money. Along the way, the Lord recaptures our imaginations with the story of the Gospel and trains our appetites to crave the nourishing presence of God. In this way, Lent makes us hungry again, free to feast on the love of Christ.
In legalistic churches, there’s no freedom to fail. It’s either perfection or crash-and-burn. But when Lent is practiced under the banner of the Gospel, failure is to be expected. Fasting, praying and giving away your money exposes weaknesses that wealth and productivity can otherwise mask. Finally, we can see our human frailty and idolatry as God sees them and are free to confess our need of God’s grace.
What happens in a church that seeks to commune with Christ during Lent? I tell you that the spiritual temperature of the leadership and congregation rises considerably. People show up more often, ready to worship, eager to hear the Word of God. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people in my church say, “I used to be afraid of Lent, but now I’m looking forward to it!” They have experienced the freedom of Christ during Lent and want more. By the time Easter rolls around, we’re all primed for a barn-storming celebration of Christ’s victory over death.
In the words of the Apostle Paul, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, so let us no longer submit ourselves to the yoke of slavery. Whether we’re under the yoke of legalism or over-consumption, Lent offers us an opportunity to own the freedom that is ours in the Gospel.