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the real reason for Lent and spiritual disciplines ain’t what you think

“What is Lent?” I was asked this yesterday. It’s a good question. To really answer it, however, we must first understand the concept of spiritual disciplines. When we hear the word discipline we often think of corrective action. When a child disobeys his mama, he is disciplined. That’s only half the story of discipline, though. When that same child is told to brush his teeth or wash his hands after using the restroom, that’s discipline, too. Discipline can be corrective and it can be formative. Spiritual discipline can be both as well.

Jesus engaged in a variety of spiritual disciplines. In his case, there was no corrective sense, but because he was really and truly human, spiritual disciplines had a strong formative role in his earthly ministry. This is why he began his public ministry by fasting for 40 days. This was not a time of recovery after a time of self-indulgence! (See “Fat Tuesday”.) By voluntarily giving up food for 40 days, Jesus was forced to rely on his Father and the Spirit for strength in a unique way, thus forming his character. This is similar to what Luke meant when he wrote in his Gospel, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). As a human, he had to grow and learn and even increase in wisdom, just as he had to be potty trained and learn to talk and walk and swing a hammer.

Other spiritual disciplines Jesus clearly engaged in were Scripture reading and memorization. During his 40-day fast, the devil appeared to him and tempted him in a number of ways. Jesus responded to these temptations by quoting Scripture and allowing Scripture to rebuke Satan. This was no magical incantation; rather, it flowed from the depths of Jesus’ being, for he was being spiritually formed by Scripture.

There were various other spiritual disciplines Jesus engaged in regularly. We know from the Gospels that he frequently spent time alone in prayer (Luke 5:16). Solitude itself is a spiritual discipline, for it allows one to rest and recharge, so to speak. Jesus even urged his disciples to do this as well! (See Mark 6:31.) While the Gospels do not explicitly state Jesus spent time meditating on Scripture, given his ability to quote them in an ad hoc fashion (see his temptations in Matthew 4), it is very likely he spent time meditating.

His life was spent in service to others. In Mark 10:45 he declared this was the reason he had come. Service is a spiritual discipline. So is public worship. In Luke 4:16 Luke tells us it was Jesus’ custom to attend and participate in the synagogue every Sabbath day. When we bother to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and assemble with Christ’s assembly, we are engaging in a spiritual discipline. By the way, if you’re going to go that far, you might as well go the whole distance and actively participate in the worship by singing and praying and actively listening during Scripture reading and the sermon, etc.

It is clear both from comments made by the Gospel writers and by Jesus himself that he expected his disciples to engage in spiritual disciplines. Earlier I mentioned Mark 6:31. After they returned from being sent out two by two, we read this:

And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

Mark 6:31–32 ESV

I find it fascinating that Mark then records the disciplines approaching Jesus, who had been preaching and teaching the crowds for hours. It was at this point that they told him it was getting late and he should send them away so they—the crowd—could find something to eat. Then Jesus fed the 5,000 men, plus women and children. I wonder if Jesus sending them away for a time of rest was to prepare them for the miracle!

We see Jesus’ expectation for his disciples to engage in spiritual disciplines in his teaching. During the Sermon on the Mount he gave instructions for how to give to the needy (Matthew 6:1–4). He said when they give, not if they give, and then told them to give in such a way they do not draw attention to themselves. Almsgiving, or giving to the poor and needy, is a spiritual discipline.

Jesus then gave instructions about praying (Matthew 6:5–15). Again, he told them when they pray, not if they pray they should pray in a manner that does not draw attention to themselves. He immediately follows this up with instructions on fasting (Matthew 6:16–18). Again, when they fast, not if they fast, they should fast in a manner that does not draw attention to themselves.

The reason they must not engage in spiritual disciplines in a showy manner designed to elevate themselves is to do so would be to lay up treasures for themselves on earth. Instead, they should lay up treasures for themselves in heaven. This is why he said the Father who sees in secret will reward you for your gifts to the poor (Matthew 6:4) and the Father who sees in secret will reward you for you prayers (Matthew 6:6) and the Father who sees in secret will reward your fasting (Matthew 6:16). By engaging in these spiritual disciplines for the Lord’s sake rather than to be seen by others, they are laying up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.

Just so I’m really clear, the treasures Jesus is referring to are spiritual disciplines! Whether acts of service or worshiping publicly with your church or reading and meditating and even memorizing Scripture or spending time alone to rest and recharge for future service and ministry, these are the treasures Jesus instructs us to pursue. Then he makes an incredible declaration:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:21 ESV

The reason you and I ought to engage in spiritual disciplines is because engaging in these disciplines lays up treasure in heaven. Notice very closely what he says: where our treasure is our heart will be also. You’d expect him to say where your heart is, that’s where your treasure will be. We spend money on the things our hearts desire, but that’s not what Jesus says! Jesus is saying that by pursuing spiritual disciplines, our hearts will be changed! By engaging in prayer and worship and service and all the other disciplines, God is at work in us, transforming us. Our hearts follow our treasure. Our treasure is whatever we pursue. If we pursue spiritual disciplines, we lay up treasures in heaven and the result is we will become more like Jesus.

The early church understood this. They continued the practice of the apostles and worshiped together every week and gave to the poor and read Scripture and meditated on it and they set aside time for prayer and they fasted regularly. At first, fasting had a weekly focus. The Didache, likely written during the apostles’ lifetimes, urged Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Over the years an annual fasting focus came into view, with a longer fast leading up to Easter. This became the Spring Fast, or the Lenten Fast.

During Lent, Christians fast together as they wait for Easter, for resurrection ends suffering. Because each Sunday is a mini-Easter, the fast is broken on Sundays. This is how Lent is a 40-day fast that takes 46 days to complete! For most this is not a total fast, but a voluntary giving up of something good as an act of spiritual discipline. To engage in a spiritual discipline is to lay up treasure in heaven!

When Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount to practice spiritual disciplines “in secret” he did not mean no one should know, as if someone finding out would nullify your effort. If he meant it that woodenly and literally, we couldn’t pray during our worship services, for those who pray are both seen and heard by others. Jesus meant we must not engage in these disciplines in order to draw attention to ourselves. He specifically said to not do these things “like the hypocrites” do them, for they do them only to be seen. Our motivation is entirely different: we engage in spiritual disciplines to lay up treasures in heaven. By laying them up in heaven, God works through these disciplines and our hearts follow our treasures, are we are transformed by him, giving us what our hearts desire more than anything else: to be more like Jesus.

Back to the question: what is Lent? Lent is a structured time in which we—together—can become more like Jesus. This is what all the spiritual disciplines are: a means to be transformed by the Lord. Should you observe Lent? Should you spend time in prayer and fasting and in corporate worship and giving to the poor and in reading and meditating on Scripture and in solitude not only during Lent, but as a regular practice? Only if you want to be more like Jesus.

It’s not too late to join the Lenten fast. Choose to give up something good in your life, whether coffee or soda or your favorite hobby, and deny yourself that good thing, while enjoying it on Sundays. During the fast ask God to change you, to cause your heart to follow your treasure. Don’t do this in a showy way, but do it in faith that spiritual discipline is one of the ways in which God truly works to make us more like Jesus.