Amid the typical blog posts and social media debates this week regarding the practice of Lent, one post was remarkable. Suzanne Marshall’s guest poston the PCACDM blog enCourage took the position that some practice of Lent, ideally practiced in community, is a commendable and even beneficial practice. This is not the historic or confessionally Presbyterian belief regarding Lent, so to find such an article in an official PCA publication is noteworthy. A number of good and godly writers have examined the ways in which Lent is not a biblical practice, and is incompatible with the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions. In the same way, a number of excellent resources presenting the questionable history and development of Lenten practice are available from qualified authors. However, Suzanne Marshall offers women the hope that participating in Lent will prepare their hearts for worship on Easter, and will awaken in them a greater love for Jesus. This is a serious claim that deserves a serious examination.
Marshall addresses a very real problem that believers of both sexes through all of church history have battled. We have all, at some point, found ourselves in the middle of a sermon, having no idea what has been said because we have been preoccupied by upcoming lunch, unfinished tasks, or other cares of our daily life. As she so poignantly noted, we find ourselves on a Sunday afternoon wondering how we have let the resurrection be snatched from us. The idea of practices such as Lent and Advent appeal to hearts seeking greater communion with God. Our lives are so full of chasing after what we will eat, what we will drink, and what we will wear, but we long to seek after the kingdom. Doesn’t something like Lent and Advent re-orient our mind to seek first the kingdom, like Jesus commanded in the gospels?
The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, tells us no. In Isaiah 58:3, the people of God ask, “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’ The Lord tells His people that their fasts are not acceptable to Him.
“Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?” Isaiah 58:5
Instead, He calls His people to active obedience and seeking the good of neighbors. He asks his people to seek justice for the oppressed, and to feed, clothe, and house the poor. He calls for self-denial, not in hope of hearing from God, for they have already heard from him, but in order to provide for others. The sack cloth and ashes are abandoned. The “bowed head” turned inward, is lifted up toward neighbor.
“Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” Isaiah 58:8,9
Self-deprivation is not the way to seek God. So what are we to do? Suzanne Marshall begins her article with “I wasn’t prepared, at least not in my heart. . . Why not prepare for Easter?” and ends with “when April 21 rolls around, I want to be ready.” So how can we prepare our hearts? Does the Lord give us guidance? Does he answer the very real struggle Marshall addresses? Of course He does. The Lord is faithful. He does not hide himself from us. In the same chapter that he says the inward focused fasting is not “. . . an acceptable day to the Lord,” he points us to a day that is acceptable, and a regular practice that will turn our hearts toward the Lord.
If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the LORD, Isaiah 58:13, 14
The reformed practice of weekly remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy answers the need Marshall’s article describes. This is the regular habit of denying ourselves to which the Lord calls us. Instead of depriving ourselves of an item or practice of our own choosing, we set aside our work, and our pleasure, at the Lord’s request, to devote one day in seven to the Lord alone. We gather in worship to receive the grace of word, prayer, and sacrament. It is in these means of grace, faithfully sought out each week, that our hearts are softened and awakened more and more.
Setting aside more than a month to prepare for a single day of worship short circuits the rhythm built into us from Creation. Spending 40 days in self-imposed fasting steals and undermines the very Sabbath rest provided by the Lord. Suzanne Marshall notes that “The long struggles and long-term projects in my past produced more lasting impressions than events quickly hurdled.” She is so right. The Christian life is a marathon, not a 40 day sprint.
Do we want to be ready to celebrate the resurrection, or the incarnation? If you, like Mrs. Marshall, want to be ready on April 21, begin with this next Sunday. Turn away from little fasts of your own choosing, of what you will eat, or drink, or wear. Instead, seek the Lord where, and how, He has promised to be found; in the ordinary means of His grace.