By Jessica Brodie, Crosswalk.com
Lent is one of the most important seasons in the Christian year. A 40-day period (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter, it begins on Ash Wednesday and ends three days before Easter Sunday.
This year, Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023, and ends three days before Easter, April 6, 2023.
Lent is a time when Christians focus on the sacrifice Jesus made for us all. We remember the events that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection, and we turn inward in looking at the ways we personally can become more Christlike.
This is why many people give up something for Lent. While many people do “take on” something for Lent, giving up something often becomes an act of solidarity with Jesus, who suffered an agonizing death in order to ensure our salvation.
It’s also a way to eliminate bad habits or idols in our life that put a wall between us and the Lord, such as depending on coffee, alcohol, or technology instead of God.
With all the focus on giving up something for Lent, it begs the question: does the Bible mention what to give up for Lent?
The answer is no, not specifically, though the idea is rooted in Scripture.
Where Does the Bible Talk about Lent?
To the surprise of many Christians, the concept of Lent is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. But the concepts embraced during Lent are very biblical — self-discipline, self-denial, and self-examination, all in an effort to repent of our sins and grow closer to the Lord as we get ready for Easter.
Lent is celebrated all over the world by many types of Christians, though not all Christians participate. Roman Catholics celebrate it, as do Protestants such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and Lutherans. Traditions include prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and special church services.
When Did Lent Start?
It’s not clear exactly when Lent started, though most scholars believe it began around the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Back then, there was mention of a 40-day season of fasting in preparation for Easter.
Most records indicate the focus was overwhelmingly on fasting and self-denial and was inspired by the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before being tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11).
It's also not clear whether the whole church began observing Lent back then or whether it was only for new converts just before their baptism. But it wasn’t too long before the entire church began to observe Lent, and specific guidelines were developed.
Does the Bible Mention What to Give Up for Lent?
The idea of giving up something for Lent is based on Luke 9:23. Shortly after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus predicted his death to the disciples, though they did not seem to understand.
As the Gospel of Luke recounts, Jesus told them what he would need to endure, as well as the self-denial and risk they, too, must experience as his followers.
As he told them, “’The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’ Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:22-24).
That concept — of denying themselves, taking up their cross daily, and following him — is the basis of Lent. When we sacrifice something personal, we feel that pinch and remember anew the suffering all children of God experience.
But Lent is more than self-denial. It’s also a time when we work to become more Christlike in our lives. We look at areas that might be slippery slopes to other, deeper-rooted sins.
Is Lent a Way of ‘Earning’ Our Salvation?
No, Lent is not a way of earning our salvation. We know our salvation is entirely dependent on God’s mercy. It’s a generous gift we don’t deserve, and there is nothing we can do to receive this gift.
We cannot possibly be good enough or smart enough or kind enough to achieve salvation, nor can we follow all the rules of living sin-free perfectly enough, for we are imperfect creatures.
But it’s important in our journey as disciples for us to strive to be like Jesus. He is our role model, our head, and our Savior. The process of becoming more Christ-like is called sanctification, and it is a good and righteous thing.
There’s a passage in the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy that captures the idea of this. As Paul writes,
In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work (2 Timothy 2:20-21).
Paul is talking here about sanctification, becoming more holy.
It’s also the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:17, which reminds us that we are “new creations” in Christ.
Are We Required to Observe Lent?
Christians are not required to observe Lent. The only thing we must do to receive salvation is to believe that Jesus Christ is our savior and repent of our sins. Ephesians 2:8 tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
But participating in Lent, like any other thing we do to draw closer to God and become a deeper and stronger disciple, is a good thing.
It’s important to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ and the way he lived his earthly life. It’s important to do what we can every day to draw closer to God and align our ways with God’s ways.
What Are Some Things We Can Give Up for Lent?
We should give up something that is meaningful to us, and this looks different for everyone. For instance, it’s not much of a sacrifice to give up coffee for someone who doesn’t drink coffee regularly.
But for a person who relies on coffee to power through a long workday? Coffee might be an excellent thing to give up. Here are some other ideas of things to give up:
- Fast food; Alcohol
- Television (or certain shows)
- Social media use
- Gossip; Foul language
Others focus on self-denial through discomfort, such as taking cool or lukewarm showers instead of hot ones; always parking far away from a store or other entrance; keeping the thermostat a few degrees cooler (or warmer) than you normally prefer; skipping personal spending or other treats; sleeping without a pillow; etc.
Where Else in the Bible Can We Find Lenten Themes?
Themes of Lenten practices — self-denial, fasting, repentance, giving to the poor — are found throughout Scripture (Romans 12:1; Matthew 10:39; Nehemiah 1:4; Joel 2:12; Matthew 4:17; Acts 3:19; Luke 6:38; Proverbs 19:17).
Whether you give up something for Lent or whether you take on something new (such as a deeper daily prayer ritual or a devotional practice), consider observing Lent this year in a way that matters to you personally.
Faith is personal — just as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was personal. God bless you this Lenten season.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Liudmila Chernetska
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at https://www.jessicabrodie.