Is Lent Legalism or Rote Ritual?
Sometimes people feel that observing Lent is legalistic, or rote.
My experience has been that anything can be legalistic or become rote. I grew up in a very free flowing, non-denominational church. Yet there were certain praise songs, or local practices and emphasis that became very common and rote. Legalism and rote-ness are not inherently bound up in any tradition. They come from within our own hearts.
The historic practices of the church, including Lent, can be presented legalistically. They can become rote. And that is what the Reformers were often pointing out. Yet most of the reforming churches didn’t eliminate these practices. It was only later that they were lost to a part of the reforming churches. Most Christians in the world today still observe them.
Today, we can restore these ancient practices in a way that also restores their original purpose and power. Lent was never intended to be a time of humiliation, works-righteousness, or earning forgiveness from a stingy god.
Instead, it was created as a time to find the true refreshment of repentance, or to renew that sense of total honesty with God. It was a time for those who had harmed others to confess that, and then to seek to make things right. It was a time for the whole people of God to slow down, to humble ourselves and to listen more closely for God’s still, small voice.
And it was intended to be a time when each individual repentant Christian was surrounded by a repentant congregation, which was surrounded by a world of repentant Christians.
My Journey in Lent
I have now observed Lent 14 times. I have failed in my fasting, giving or disciplines every time, to a greater or lesser degree each year. I sometimes practiced the disciplines as if I were proving to God that I was worthy of his love. Here and there I overdid it, and a few times I pretty much skipped it. But none of this I did alone. I had my brothers and sisters around me. I had the saints before me. I had the fellowship of believers around the world. And I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was never alone.
I can say that my experience of intentionally walking through Lent has given me an annual spiritual check-up. It has given me a time when I have been able to ask God to show me my sins and flaws. Every year he has shown me more of my true self, in one way or another. And after about 10 years of Lent, I felt that I finally began to see how much God was showing me his total love and grace. I am now able to look forward to Lent each year, rather than dread it as my false notions of God caused me to do in the past. I don’t believe those false notions would have fallen away, for me, without this ancient practice. God used it greatly in my own life.
And so I commend the season of Lent to you and your congregation. Take the journey and see how the Lord reveals his grace once again.