Chronologically speaking, the forty days of Christ’s temptation and the three days of Christ’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection are spaced by about three years with the first event at the beginning of his ministry and the latter, at the end. However, that is not the way the church calendar is constructed. It was not built with chronology as its central aim, though most of it is chronological. Rather, it was constituted with respect to days and seasons. And with respect to the Lenten season, at least as the church calendar intends, it is to be a period of personal and collective reflection and repentance by God's children as well as the removal of a selected number of temporal things which might distract one from greater spiritual concentration.
And while readers might want to learn a bit more about the history and development of the Christian church calendar, this essay, being so brief and single-minded, won’t be elaborating on that issue, maybe another time. However, as part of the Christian or church calendar, I do want to comment on Lent.
Our Lord’s Forty Days
Many people believe that our Lord’s forty days in the desert-wilderness was to produce some form of super-spirituality which was derived, in part, from his self-denial in fasting in order to overcome the temptations of Satan. I do not believe this is the case.
The objective of our Lord being driven into the wilderness was not for the self-denial of fasting in order to produce some hyper-spiritual state but upon defeating the Devil, Satan, the Evil One thereby, providing the means of salvation for all who believe.
But this does beg the question, why fast, then? I will get to that in a moment.
The Scriptures reveal that Christ came to do “the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38) and to “seek and saved that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). These are not the only things spoken regarding the objectives of Christ but these other things generally fall under these two main objectives.
As part and parcel of seeking and saving those who were lost and doing the will of the Father by suffering the death on a cross, we also have the other side of the cross, so to speak, with its objective of defeating the Evil One in his war against God and satisfying or propitiating the justice of God.
John states in 1 John 3:8c (NASB):
The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.I am convinced that the forty days in the desert, where Christ was to endure the most starkly impoverished conditions one can be placed into and during which the Savior faced the temptations of the evil one, were not the design of God but by Satan. Before I go further, come with me for a moment.
The book of Job is a shadow of things to come. That is not its sole purpose but that is a major theme. Now, let’s take a peek at some of the realities which went into creating a shadow of things to come:
1 There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. 2 Seven sons and three daughters were born to him. 3 His possessions also were 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants; and that man was the greatest of all the men of the east…6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” 8 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” 12 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord.This narrative is important not only in understanding God and Job but Satan, our Adversary, as well. Do you see the shadowy parallel of our Lord’s suffering? Both Job, the shadow or type and Christ, the realization, did not seek out suffering nor designed such suffering for themselves but had to endure it as crafted and administered from Satan and permitted and used by God.
13 Now on the day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and took them. They also slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands and made a raid on the camels and took them and slew the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19 and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 He said,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
I am convinced, though I will not offer it with the dogmatism of other doctrines, that all of the elements with their details of our Lord’s suffering in those forty days and even during the passion, were as a result of a similar appeal to God by Satan to permit this so that the Evil one could cause Christ, the God-man, to sin thereby, enabling Satan to finally provide evidence in heaven’s court that he, Satan, was right and God was wrong in his judgment against Satan when he fell, along with removing his sentence of eternal damnation and all of this culminating with the Evil One taking his place over God. Of course, Biblical history records the Evil One’s failure and our Lord’s victory on our behalf. Hallelujah.
Christ’s Fasting and Temptation in the Desert
Christ’s being compelled by the Holy Spirit into the desert was done so precisely for this temptation. In earthly terms, this was a set-up. From Satan’s viewpoint (high IQ. without wisdom and divine illumination often results in diabolicalism) he was going to have Christ where he wanted him, isolated and at his weakest moment which brings me to his fasting.
Some people mistakenly believe fasting is a form or means of spiritual strengthening, it isn’t. Fasting is a form of weakening particularly when one does not eat for forty days. Our Lord weakened himself and became critically vulnerable in his human condition. Mark 1:12-13 records:
12 The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needsAs I said, some believe that this fasting was to induce a super-spiritual state. However sincere this belief is, spirituality does not come through the denial of food for the flesh or any other system of human self-denial, it simply makes us weak, physically, which can and does have an influence on us mentally, at times, unless, of course, you are in continuous fellowship with God through the constant filling of the Spirit, which Christ always was and which we sometimes are not.
Super-spirituality, if we are to use this concept, can only come through yielding to God’s Spirit and Christ could not get any more spiritual in the first place otherwise we would have to assert that there was a *deficiency in him as he entered the desert! This is why I postulate that even the fasting was not for any spiritual exercise, rather as part of the conditions Satan insisted upon in the appeal, which I believe, Satan made to God as he did with Job, before his testing.
(*After thinking about this, it may not carry quite the weight I imagined when I included it in the post. I say that because we do learn that Christ did grow in wisdom and stature - Luke 2:52, so there is an increasing of the God-man with respect to his humanity, in his life. However, my arguments do not rise and fall on this observation and as well, Christ's fellowship with the Father through the Spirit was always constant and is somewhat different than his learning but still, I concede it is not a strong observation on my part but again, read further and you will understand it is not consequential in my theological proposition on the matter.)
Genuine Suffering vs. Self-Prescribed Suffering, Games with God
When we come upon the ministry of our Lord and beyond that, into the lives of the Apostles, there is something unlike the concept of Lent, in their lives. Lent involves self-prescribed suffering and may times what can be classified as trivial or gimmick suffering such as the denial of chocolate, alcohol (for Christians who use this), forms of entertainment and various hobbies and so on as well as prescribed prayer time beyond one’s normal prayers (how prayer can be prescribed in the context of suffering I will never know). In the lives of Christ and his Apostles, while we see suffering, we do not see it self-prescribed and certainly not as some condition for super-spirituality and doubtless not in forms such as denying one’s self chocolate or Facebook.
Frankly, I find such ideas comical and ultimately these are not much more than games with God. We construct our own Lent and offer it to God. Hmmm…sound familiar? Cain anyone?
God is clear, if we are to share in the glory of Christ at our resurrection, we are to share in his sufferings (2 Cor. 1:7;12:10, Phil. 3:10, Rom. 8:17). But that suffering is presented, always, in the context of it being as a result of serving Christ, for his causes, as we live for him in this world, not self-prescribed suffering.
So are you saying Lent is wrong?
Undoubtedly it would be foolish to argue against Scripture. God is clear that one man may regard one day as more sacred or holy and others may find them all as such (Romans 14:4). Possibly, it ultimately comes down to me being the second man.
However, while it is not for me to judge what days one wishes to observe as holy before God and others as not, it is up to me to examine their practices and even more, the theology, behind such claims as I may observe and present them and that is just what I hope to have accomplished here.
Christ came to do what I cannot. I do not practice Lent for the same reason I do not practice suffering on a cross. That was our Lord’s suffering, on our behalf. I cannot do that nor am I called to do that anywhere in Scripture. I am called, however, to walk in the results of all of that.
Now, I suppose I could observe the forty days of our Lord’s suffering as a special season in memorial fashion, as the church does during Easter where there is an elevated memorial because this is the time of the year our Lord died on the cross and won our victory but all of this ignores something bigger and much more obvious.
The Christian life stems from or is a product of all that our Lord endured but as well, is all day, every day. While most Christians have chosen to worship corporately on Sunday, Sunday is not elevated as special because we live more for Christ on that day. We are to live for him, always, and suffer for him, always. God is quite able to ordain to permit suffering to come into our lives as a result of living for Christ. Possibly, most of our problem is we want our suffering, not the kind which comes from a life devoted to Christ.
God’s Word promises that if we serve our Lord we will suffer. Go serve the Lord and God will fulfill his promise; there’s your Lent, it’s all day, every day.