Repent of Lent: How Spiritual Disciplines Can Be Bad for Your Soul

Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness on our behalf, so we wouldn’t have to; not as a model, but as a substitute

His passion was not a discipline that made his heart pure in its love for his Father, it was the price to be paid for our sins, and he paid it in full. Christians are called to suffer as Christ suffered, that is, with the same purpose. We are called to suffer not for ourselves, but for others. When we engage in fasting in his image, but for the purpose of purifying ourselves, we invert that image. Such penitence is ultimately focused on self, not on the other.


Discussions about religious liberty seem to be cropping up everywhere these days.

Last year on Ash Wednesday, my daughter was one of the few kindergarteners at her Lutheran school who didn’t take the ashes.

As an aside, I love when five year olds show scruples. But virtue has its price, and peer-pressure rears its head early. My little girl was subsequently teased by a classmate — not one of the Lutherans, mind you — for her clean forehead, making her the latest (and perhaps the least) in a long line of martyrs to the Reformed faith.

This confessional kerfuffle had a happy ending, however. Lutheran justice was swift, religious liberty upheld, and the persecuting child prosecuted. The punishment fit the crime… I think they might have covered the inquisitor head to toe in ashes.

The Affair of the Sausages

Ironically, it was the preaching of Martin Luther that inspired one of the most famous incidents of Lenten non-observance, almost 500 years ago. In 1522, the “Affair of the Sausages” launched the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. Huldrych Zwingli, Pastor in Zurich, attended and later defended, even blessed, a Lenten feast of meaty sausages, verboten vittles during the obligatory fast.

Zwingli’s concern was twofold: Christian liberty, and Christian sanctification. Regarding liberty, since the Scriptures did not command fasting, Zwingli felt a Christian was free to fast, or free to not fast.

Jesus himself had declared all foods to be clean: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him” (Mark 7:18). For a church to forbid the eating of foods without biblical warrant was to play the Pharisee, to lay a burden upon a man’s conscience that God himself had not commanded. This would be in direct violation of Paul’s injunction to “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16).

Lent Today

Lenten observance today runs a wide gamut, from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches that maintain obligatory days of abstinence, to Protestant observances among Lutherans and Anglicans that are typically voluntary and evangelical. The Puritan wing of the Reformation typically eschews any recognition of the church calendar (and associated feasting and fasting) while some continental Reformed voluntarily mark the evangelical feast days of our Lord’s life with special services, and no more.

My sense, however, is that many evangelical Christians who long eschewed Lenten observance such as ashes and fasting as mere external religion are increasingly warming to the practice. Perhaps this is under the influence of the emergent church (remember them?), or just a general increase in religious eclecticism and increasing mobility between faith communities.

It also seems as though there is a growing cultural awareness of “giving up” things for Lent. Lent has a certain cache; It’s cool, like a cleanse, only involving God, and prayer. Our tolerant society broadly embraces asceticism, at least the temporary sort that doesn’t hurt too much, or just enough whip your body or soul into shape. Lent is mainstream enough even in our post-Christian culture for there to be water-cooler humor about “giving up fasting for Lent.”

But Does It Work?

Lost amid the ashes and sausages, King cakes and shrove pancakes — can’t forget about the pancakes — is Zwingli’s deeper concern about the nature of Christian sanctification. As a cradle Catholic who’s done the ashes, and a former evangelical whose fasted to the point of fainting, at this point in my life I find myself increasingly concerned that Lenten abstinence, obligatory or not, can in fact be bad for one’s soul.

Note that I am not a Puritan who is opposed to all observance of the church calendar, nor do I deny the value of learning practical piety from Christian tradition. With Zwingli, I affirm the Christian’s freedom to fast, or not to fast, and thus obligatory observance of Rome and the East remains beyond the Protestant pale. Yet I believe that this tradition — the spiritual discipline of seasonal fasting and abstinence — is more often than not detrimental to our faith.

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