Why Don’t Protestants Observe Lent?
I’m a practicing Orthodox Christian, and we’ve observing Lent. I was with some others from my church, and one of them asked why Protestants didn’t do the same. I thought answering that question would make a good blog post.
So, why don’t Protestants observe Lent?
Protestants don’t observe Lent because they believe that Lent is unbiblical. Protestants accept the Bible as the sole source of authority and reject the traditions of the Church Fathers. They also tend to view Lent as a Catholic corruption of Christianity.
So, that’s the short answer. Lent isn’t in the Bible, Protestants dislike following things outside of the Bible, so they reject Lent.
Now how do Protestants justify their views? What are the various points they draw against Lent?
Let’s break down some fo their common criticism of the Lenten season.
“Lent Isn’t Biblical”
“Lent isn’t in the Bible!”
This is by far the most common Protestant criticism of Lent, and they’re right. Lent isn’t in the Bible.
Or, at least, the word Lent isn’t.
But the components of Lent are all to be found in the Book, and Lent constitutes a “bringing together” of these things.
“So, what does Lent unite?”
Lent is a combination of three things: prayer, fasting, and generosity; each of which is encouraged in the Bible.
The call to prayer should be obvious.
The value of fasting is mentioned throughout, most notably in the passages concerning John the Baptist who lived in the desert, where he subsisted on locusts and wild honey, and was exalted as the greatest person born among men.
Jesus’ lengthy fast in the wilderness also points tot he value of fasting.
And Christ’s encouragement of generosity is spread throughout the entirety of the New Testament.
So the elements of Lent are all in the book, and the 40-day span is also of great biblical significance.
We can observe the importance of the number 40 at several places within the Old and New Testaments.
The Old Testament shows us that Moses (Ex 34:28) and the Prophet Elijah (I Kings 19:8) both fasted for 40 days.
And the New Testament accounts for Christ’s 40-day fast in Matthew 4:1-11.
“Fine, but what does Jesus have to say about fasting?”
Later, in Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus instructs his follower son how they should behave when they fast.
When they fast.
Not if they fast.
So Jesus expects his followers to fast, and the Bible encourages this practice.
And Lent is the culmination of the Bible’s providence on fasting.
But Protestants reject it ostensibly because it is called by the word Lent, which does not appear in the Bible.
Why Don’t Protestants Observe Lent? – Lent Implies Salvation by Works
Neither Catholics nor Orthodox Christians believe that people are saved by practicing Lent. Followers of both religions are required to believe that we are saved through grace alone. You cannot be saved by observing Lent.
Yet some Protestants like to pretend that Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe otherwise. They claim that the observance of Lent proves that members of the former two religions believe in salvation by works.
This view simply isn’t true, and anyone who speaks to a priest from one of the two churches can verify it. Yet the myth persists because many Protestants would like for it to be true so that they can more easily condemn the other religions.
The view of Catholic and Orthodox Christians is that belief in salvation by works makes one arrogant and that this arrogance then leads to behaviors which damage one’s standing before God. Life would be better without it!
Now, it certainly is true that some people who faithfully observe Lent will believe in their own superiority because of it. These people are sinning against their religion. They would do well to confess their error to a priest.
Another problem Protestants have with Lent is its short length. The view these Protestants hold is that if people who upheld Lent were genuine, then those same people would maintain their fast during the rest of the year.
I guess they’ve never met an Orthodox Christian.
Now, I think this view has some validity. If Lenten practices were good, then it makes sense that they would be good to uphold for the rest of the year.
And the reason why people don’t observe Lent the entire year requires a bit of Biblical historical background in order to understand.
Christianity developed out fo Judaism and inherited many of its beliefs. Among them was the notion that religious faith had seasonality and that religious activity should be increased during certain times of the year. So the idea that a span should be allocated for increased spiritual observances was consistent with the early Christians’ prior beliefs.
Integrating a spiritual season into the Christian calendar and observing it every year had another valuable effect. This has been to allow Christians to develop a spiritual biorhythm which strengthens with every successive year. The Lenten season produces this biorhythm and helps integrate Christianity into a Christian’s physiology.
…And then there’s the practical reason for not maintaining Lent the entire year. Simply put, people can’t do it. Most people just lack the discipline required to observe Lenten fasts all year. So the 40-day period is set as a mercy for them.
This is the reason why the Catholic and Orthodox churches encourage people to practice Lenten self-denial year-round, even though it is not obligatory.
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Why Don’t Protestants Observe Lent? – Bad Experiences with Lent
This is one of the reasons why Catholics lose respect for Lent. You’ll rarely find a lifelong Protestant who has any bad experiences associated with the season.
Let’s face it, most Catholics are lapsed Catholics. They don’t take their religion seriously, and they fail to teach their children the importance of Lent. Nor do they send their children to church where they would learn.
But they still expect their children to observe Lent because “that’s what Catholics are supposed to do”.
So many Catholics are expected to observe Lent while they grow up, but they are not taught to accept its value. It seems like pointless suffering to them. So when they are finally old enough to reject it, they do. Some of these Catholics become Protestants because of their dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church, and they bring their contempt with them.
Now, the fact that some people have had bad experiences with Lent does not mean that observing Lent is wrong. However, many people are motivated entirely by their feelings,a dn they will reject things that make them feel bad because those things make them feel bad, and they care little for the truth. You can’t argue with or persuade these people. They don’t care about the truth. They care about their feelings instead.
“Lent Is for Catholics”
This is probably the most common reason why Protestants reject Lent.
Most people in general don’t know really anything about Christianity. They have a general understanding that God is good and the Devil is bad, and they might know parts of a few verses, but their knowledge ends there.
So most people simply look around themselves and accept what they see at face value and without thinking about or understanding it.
Sometimes they see Catholics talking about Lent. Then they think to themselves, “Catholics are talking about Lent. I don’t do Lent. It must be a Catholic thing.”
So they divide the world into two groups, “myself” and “others,” and they associate Lent with the latter.
In other words, they reject Lent because other people accept it, and those other people aren’t like them. They don’t actually know anything about Lent, but they reject it all the same.
Sometimes people believe that educating the ignorant about Lent will lead them to accept it. They are mistaken. The reason why the ignorant are ignorant is because they did not care enough about the topic to learn about it in the first place. Teaching them theology will not overcome their apathy.
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