I always understand when I see young people rejecting the traditions of their parents, at least in the short term. It’s amazing how often they return to them, however.
I grew up in a Christian faith tradition that observed Lent. When I later struck out on my own rocky but ultimately redemptive spiritual journey, I joined a church that didn’t observe Lent (or Advent, either, for that matter). True to form, I rejected these commemorations of my youth, believing that they smacked of legalism. “They detract from my freedom in Christ”, I’d say, “I’m saved by the blood of the Lamb, not because I give something up for 40 days.”
But, I was kind of missing the point. And, when I had kids of my own, and thought more about it, those old traditions of the past took on new meaning and life for me. Our family observes Lent as a time of fasting, preparation, and anticipation of the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. Lent is extra-biblical (in the sense of not expressly mentioned in Scripture, although fasting is), so whether or not to recognize it has to be, as almost all family decisions, an intentional, prayerful one. Here are some of the powerful ways that I think this season of preparation and fasting can help guide conversations and spiritual teaching of our kids:
Lent helps us teach our kids to discipline their hearts. Few times in our society do we tell ourselves “no.” We’re constantly bombarded by messages telling us that we “deserve” the best things in life (things that usually aren’t), and that we can, and should “have it now.” As parents who have been around the block a few times, we realize that, as I tell my kids, almost everything that really matters in life is at the far end of the pool. You have to swim to get it. Whether it’s having a strong marriage, saving up for a home, or giving treasure we could be spending, it requires short-term work, dying to self, and/or discipline to recognize the sweetness that is to come. It’s really, really good for all of us to say “no” to ourselves, the desires of the flesh, and to discipline our hearts. Encouraging our kids to join us in fasting, in giving something up, helps them practice that oft-neglected spiritual discipline of self-denial.
Lent also reminds us of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, preparing for His public ministry, and His temptation by Satan toward the end of that time. In Scripture, it says that after 40 days, “Jesus was hungry”- perhaps the greatest understatement ever. In that moment, Satan offered Him the opportunity to use His power to provide for Himself, to make a big splash that would convince everyone who He was, and to simply reach out and take the kingdoms of this world that Satan offered, a crown without a cross. Jesus considered the easy way, and chose the hard one, a way of shame and pain and separation, because although He could have had all of the kingdoms in other ways, there was only one way to you. Lent is a wonderful time to reflect upon our dire need for that cross, and upon our gratefulness for a Lord who considered you worth any cost.
As with all fasting, Lent helps us incline our hearts toward our Lord. Far from creating another distraction, it eliminates distractions, weeding out those many, many things that compete for our attention and are unimportant, in exchange for the one thing that truly is. Lent is a powerful practice of preparing our hearts as fertile ground for the Holy Spirit’s work; no wonder Satan tells us, as he did to Jesus, “That’s no fun. Take the easy way. You can have it all right now. You owe it to yourself.”
How you actually practice Lent as a family is up to you, but some aspects of self-denial, fasting and focus usually figure in. I know, as I write, that Lent and other seasons of fasting can be legalistic, if you buy the assumption that the practice, rather than Christ’s passion, buys your freedom and God’s favor. That’s a life lesson for kids, too- how to discern between practicing spiritual discipline as an act of worship, and as a way to earn God’s favor. But, practiced rightly, redemptively, and well, seasons of preparation like Lent can be family traditions that are full of teachable moments and profound meaning.