Is Lent Actually in the Bible?
- Betty Dunn Contributing Writer
- 2021 9 Feb
The example of Lent in the Bible is found in Matthew 4:1-11 (NIV) when Jesus is tested by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for his ministry on Earth. Jesus’ temptation narrative is understood by mainline church Christians to represent the Lenten experience before Easter. Foundations of Lent are prayer, fasting, and charity—practices that help us honor Christ’s life in the home stretch of the 40 days before Easter.
Does every participant follow a strict Lenten plan of rigid self-denial? No. Though it is popularly regarded as a period of fasting, there are many ways to experience the renewal of the Lenten period without missing meals. A broader view of Lent is possible and more meaningful in our spiritual walk to Easter.
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What Is the Origin and History of Lent?
The word “Lent” derives from the Old English word for “lengthening,” as in how the days after winter growing longer with more daylight. The word Lent also denotes the season “Spring” in Old German, the language of Teutonic people in northern Europe.
As always, we are launched with Spring weather into the rebirth of creation’s plants and animals. Nature awakens a spirit of change in people as well. After winter’s drear comes renewal, new life.
When the snow finally melts and the sun shines longer each day, you might notice the mud outside and the grime on the walls or floors; it’s time to scrub, rake, maybe cleanout closets or buy accessories to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). You might feel the need to make some personal changes with spring, to “clean house” in a deeper, more significant way. Observing Lent cleanses our spirits and lets us begin anew in our faith.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which is February 17, 2021. Ash Wednesday services, in which clergy place blessed ashes on parishioners’ foreheads in the shape of a cross, honor our need for grace from God. The cross of ashes marks us as saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection, His sacrifices done for us. We are encouraged to respond to this sacrifice in our walkthrough Lent, preparing for Christ’s Easter gift with humble hearts.
Does This Holiday Have Any Biblical Basis?
The story of Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4:1-11 describes the three facets of Lent. Lenten practices encouraged by the traditional Christian church reflect these three temptations of Christ.
Fasting versus Eating Matthew 4:2-4
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread. Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Praying versus Testing God Matthew 4:5-7
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Charity versus The Lure of Riches Matthew 4:8-10
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”
Why Is Lent Important?
There are parallels between Jesus’ temptation for 40 days and our possible Lenten experience.
The temptation of food—turning stone into bread:
Jesus was tempted by Satan while Jesus fasted for 40 days. Jesus’ physical being under stress was vulnerable to overeating or eating anything. Traditionally, Christians give up something they like to eat during Lent, something like chocolate or donuts. Perhaps this food or drink is very important in your life. Perhaps it is not good for your body. This “sacrifice” of an enjoyed food may make us edgy and contemplative. This restless mood makes us ripe for spiritual lessons.
In Matthew 4:4, Jesus answered Satan’s offer to turn stone into bread with the words, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Jesus was hungry, very hungry. In his hunger pangs, we can see our own fasting as a time to focus on and listen to God. When we don’t take meals, or stop for a latte, time in the day expands and gives us opportunities for contemplation. Hunger sharpens our senses. Through the discipline of fasting, we hear God speak. We may intentionally read and study God’s word more often during a fasting period.
Fasting during Lent can also take the form of resisting certain activities, giving up on a supposed need. The idea of fasting, of sacrificing, with a “broken spirit and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) is pleasing to God. It takes discipline.
Praying in a God-centered way—not “throwing yourself down”:
Asking God to catch Jesus when he throws himself off the highest point of the temple is the second temptation of Jesus. Satan tempted Jesus to act out a dramatic, emotional display of God’s power. If Jesus requests that his Father save him from falling to his death, God should save him on the spot, according to Satan.
We test God when we pray he will catch us when we fall. We take risks, ignoring the pleading of the Holy Spirit. I still wish God would always catch us when we fall, but that’s not how God works. Our prayers are not always answered or certainly not in the way or timing we hope for or expect.
Lent is about leading a quieter, contemplative life. The Psalmist wrote, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Walking obediently with God, we recognize that prayer and God’s response is a relationship. We are to “Do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Quiet Lenten activities may include going on a “date with God,” in which you do most of the listening and God does most of the talking. Find a beautiful, calming place for your date. Have a second and third date. Develop a relationship with God while you are dating. Regular time in prayer will lead to profound healing and growth of your spirit.
Another contemplative activity commonly practiced at Lent, especially on Good Friday, is walking the stations of the cross. Christian church sanctuaries often have Christ’s walk to the cross depicted in plaques or other artwork that guide pilgrims following Christ’s journey at the end of Lent. There are fourteen stations on which to meditate, each depicting a step in Christ’s final walk to the cross.
There are also meditative labyrinth walks, becoming more common and widespread. The labyrinth pattern to follow may be outdoors, blended with nature, or indoors on a large cloth. Walking the labyrinth with prayers allows you to meditate on the past, present, and future of your relationship with God and draw closer to him.
Giving to charity with your benefits:
Avoiding the temptation of riches is the third temptation Jesus encounters when tempted by Satan. Giving alms or charity is another observance of Lent we can practice. Special offerings and service projects of churches and community organizations invite people to give generously during the Lenten season before Easter while we retain less for ourselves. It’s called sacrifice, and Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on Good Friday, which marks the end of Lent.
Bible verse on charity may inspire your giving. The word “love” replaces the word “charity” in more recent translations of the Bible. I Corinthians 13:13 says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, wrote “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Working for social justice is a way to show love to your community and world.
Fasting and giving alms may seem like suffering. Finding prayer time takes discipline. Lenten practices are temporary inconveniences done to prepare for a time of great joy. Our testing during Lent is a very mild form of the suffering Jesus endured at the beckoning of Satan. And our suffering does not compare with Jesus’ death on the cross. We can share in the eventual joy of Easter more fully by immersing ourselves in the traditional practices of Lent.
Scripture to Read during Lent
Psalm 27:13 encourages readers to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” Easter is coming right after Lent.
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you…” (James 4:8). Take extra time with the Lord during Lent.
"I want to know Christ, yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
Jesus prepared for his ministry on Earth by fasting, praying, and contemplating charitable giving. Christians can prepare to celebrate Easter by honoring Christ’s example while they observe these same practices. The spiritual change in the world after Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection three days later marks an end to Christians’ despair. The traditions of Lent prepare our hearts, in a calm, hopeful way, for the renewal of faith celebrated Easter morning.
The process of journeying from Lent to Easter is like giving up chocolate for 40 days to more fully appreciate receiving a whole basket of chocolates at the Easter feast. As it says in the Bible, “. . . weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalms 30:5b).
May you walk through Lent, preparing for Christ’s Easter gift, with humble, thankful hearts.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Nambitomo
Betty Dunn hopes her articles in Crosswalk.com help you hold hands with God, a theme in her self-published novel Medusa. A former high school English teacher and editor, she is working on new writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets, and family. Check out her blog at Betty Dunn and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com