In many churches, this season of early spring coincides with the season of Lent. During this time of year, Christians of many backgrounds have traditionally made a point of practicing spiritual disciplines such as fasting and prayer. For many of us in evangelical, independent church backgrounds, however, this season (and, really, the church calendar as a whole, except Christmas and Easter), are often somewhat unfamiliar. We don’t know much about why or how Lent has been practiced, and we have a vague sense that it’s something only done by Catholics, or is a legalistic way of trying to earn points with God.

In recent years, I myself have come to really appreciate this time of reflection and discipline during Lent for several reasons. It’s true that criticism of Lenten practice as often observed can be quite justified. Following up a day (or week) of Mardi Gras revelry and mayhem with a season when we’re obligated to replace meat with fish seems like a strange way to deepen our spiritual life and walk with God. But beyond the cultural perception, there is a very real and deep opportunity to this time of year that we often miss.

First, Lent comes around each year as a reminder. All year, it’s a good practice to examine our lives to see what sin or habits might be creeping in that separate us from God or make it more difficult to live for Him. All year, it’s good practice to pursue spiritual disciplines to help re-focus ourselves on Him. But, realistically, we’re all human, and it’s all too easy to forget about our spiritual life in the busy reality that is our daily life. So, for me, it’s nice to have an annual reminder. Every year as the days lengthen and we look forward to spring cleaning all the things we’ve neglected in our houses through the winter, Lent comes around. We have the opportunity for an annual checkup. All the time we should be pursuing God and cutting out habits that get in the way- this time of year reminds us to take stock of how we’re doing.

After we’ve taken inventory, Lent provides another opportunity to take a baby step towards correcting anything we find in our lives that is problematic. Again, if there’s something in our lives that we should be giving up, or a practice that we should adopt, then that should be a permanent change. But, being only human, that can easily seem like an insurmountable task. I’ve always appreciated having a framework to work within for guidance, and a season like Lent provides that perfectly. Fasting (Matt. 9:14-15) on a regular basis can seem like a big task, especially when you’ve never done it before. But, making a point of it for just 40 days isn’t so bad. Several years ago, my wife and I began a practice of a family prayer service at the beginning of each day as a practice for Lent. We continued it beyond that season, and still do it today. But it helped to know that the original commitment was only for 40 days.

Overall, in fact, many of the “rules” for how Lent is traditionally observed, are in place not to be burdensome or legalistic, but quite the opposite. Many such “rules” are in fact allowances made for human weakness. Legalism would in fact, insist that new good habits be adopted immediately and maintained at all times. Legalism would insist that bad habits or attitudes be dropped without a second thought forever. If you slip up, and either indulge in something you’ve given up, or neglect something you committed to do, legalism offers only judgment and guilt. This is because of the difference between “legalism” and “grace”. If our relationship to God depends on us, then messing up causes a great deal of guilt and shame, because we’ve blown it! On the other hand, if our relationship to God depends instead on Him and His grace, then even those times when we’ve blown it, we have the freedom to get up and try again.

That brings me to many of those “rules” of observing Lent. They’ve been fashioned by people like us over nearly 2,000 years, and sometimes remind me of the disclaimers at the end of a medicine commercial on TV! But the common theme is that they’re exceptions to make it easier on us. Basically, Lent is a season where we’re advised to take time to examine ourselves, fast, and take on extra spiritual disciplines as we look forward to the time of year when we remember the most significant moments in the Christian faith, the death and Resurrection of Jesus. But, when doing so, traditionally Sundays don’t count (it’s always a celebration day-the day of the Resurrection), so everyone gets a weekly break from your fasting. Also, you shouldn’t fast (here’s the medical-sounding disclaimer), if you are “over 60, under 14, sick, traveling, eating at a friend’s house, pregnant, or nursing”. That list makes an important point about spiritual disciplines like Lent. Spiritual discipline is not something we do to look or be better than others, but to help us, personally, draw closer to God. There will be things that make us unable to pursue the practice we’ve chosen sometimes, and that’s okay! Even when we break our fast or neglect our prayer, God is always drawing close to us.

I’ll close by sharing how my family and I have chosen to observe Lent these last few years (and not felt guilty during the process!) First, we’ve done it together. Practicing spiritual disciplines is made much easier by doing it with someone. The early church used to all fast together, making room for mutual encouragement. Then, as I mentioned before, we started doing morning prayers as a family several years ago- we continue to do so each day. There are days that we forget. There are days we get busy doing something else. There are days the kids are sick. But the goal was every day for 40 days back in 2013, and the goal is still every day. And if we miss a day, all is not lost! We can go right back the next day with the same goal.

Another of our goals this year was fasting from certain extravagant foods. I’ve talked in several sermons about how one of the ways Satan temps us is through our physical needs, and I’ve found that to be true for myself. I’m slightly overweight, but more to the point, I’m all too willing to grab an extra snack or eat a certain food just because it tastes good, whether I need it or not. Healthy or not, that has the risk to become an idol. So, this year, we fast! It’s tough for me. Even tougher because as the calendar falls, Lent overlaps with Valentine’s Day, 2 family birthdays, and 2 church potlucks. Fasting through that period is a tall order indeed! And, in fact, we’ve made exceptions. Our family has been sick this week, so we’ve taken a bit of honey in our tea to sooth our throats. We celebrate birthdays and holidays. When a friend offers hospitality, we accept. And, after the sickness or celebration, we continue with the fast, because the point remains the same, and the season isn’t about slavishly keeping rules or making ourselves guilty or miserable, but about working on discipline to give up the things that trip us up, and intentionally seeking after God. So this spring, as we look to the cross, to Christ and all He gave up for us, don’t feel guilty or worry about what rules you keep, but each day be free to pursue Him, and examine what things you might need to cut out or add to your life as you follow Him, and make it a point to do that. It’s only a few weeks, and if you slip up, start fresh the next day-because God is still there and still calling.