A Prayer Devotional for the Season of Lent
In a traditional church calendar, the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday are known as the season of Lent. It’s a season of fasting and prayer in anticipation of Holy Week—the week we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ (Easter). In more traditional or liturgical church contexts, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when congregants receive a mark of ashes on their foreheads. The season is then observed by giving something up for 40 days, until the fast is ended on Palm Sunday.
Growing up, Lent often confused me. First, I thought everyone was talking about lint, and I was not sure what the fuzzy stuff in my pockets had to do with church. Second, while I knew we were supposed to give something up for 40 days, I didn’t understand why. So I gave up tomatoes. I hated tomatoes. It was one of the easiest decisions I ever made.
Lent can be equally confusing for congregations in the Free Church tradition, like Westgate. We don’t tend to pay much attention to the traditional church calendar, and so we’re not always sure whether we’re supposed to be participating in things like Lent, or what it’s all about.
THE SYMBOLISM OF LENT
Lent is not a biblically mandated observance. The practice developed gradually in church history, and didn’t really take shape until after the Council of Nicea in the fourth century A.D. For this reason, less formally liturgical churches (like Westgate) don’t tend to emphasize the practice.
But in its best forms, Lent does involve biblical spiritual disciplines, specifically those of prayer and fasting.
Ash Wednesday begins the season with biblical imagery of both humility and repentance. Humility, particularly in terms of reminding us of our mortality: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). And repentance, which was often expressed through “sackcloth and ashes.” For instance, when Daniel mourns over Israel’s exile and offers his prayer of repentance, he begins: “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3).
Similarly, the practice of giving something up for Lent is meant to be a form of fasting. Fasting is the act of denying oneself food (or something else) as a tangible act of dependence on God. We say no to certain physical appetites for a time in order to focus our longings and desires on God himself. It engages the body and the will in our spiritual pursuit of Christ.
While ancient Israel’s law only commanded them to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 26:29-31), God’s people have made a practice of fasting for a variety of reasons, like confessing sin (e.g. Neh. 9:1-2), bringing a burden or request before God (e.g. Exod. 24:18; 2 Sam. 12:15-23), or simply expressing one’s dependence on God, like Jesus in the wilderness (e.g. Matt. 4:1-2). It was a common part of the early church’s worship (cf. Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). And there are several examples of fasts lasting for forty days (e.g., Moses, Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:18; Elijah, 1 Kgs. 19:7-8; the Ninevites, Jon. 3:4; Jesus, Matt. 4:1-2).
One form of fasting is a fast of repentance—giving something up as an expression of sorrow and a plea for God’s mercy (e.g. Jer. 6:22-26; Dan. 9:1-19; Jon. 3:4-10; cf. Isa. 58). This is the specific idea of Lent.
Lent is a season of self-examination and repentance, expressed through self-denial, in preparation for Easter. The hunger we feel for food or something we’re used to is meant to remind us of our deeper hunger for God. It gives us an opportunity to examine our hearts and repent of anything we’re holding onto more tightly than God. And it’s meant to redirect our attention, desire, and dependence toward God’s means of satisfying that hunger—the cross and resurrection of Christ.
So while it’s not biblically mandated that we fast at this time or in this way, it can be a helpful and nourishing spiritual experience. And the occasion of Easter is as good an occasion as any to set aside time to focus on our dependence and relationship with God.
PRACTICING LENT AT WESTGATE
We don’t practice Lent at Westgate Church in the same way as most traditional churches. We don’t have an Ash Wednesday service, nor do we ask our congregants to give up something tangible for the season. You are welcome to do that of course, but there is no expectation, and we don’t want anyone to be motivated to do so by a sense of guilt or performance.
We do however encourage our congregation to give special attention to their relationship with God during this season, specifically in terms of prayer. And for that reason we are supplying this prayer devotional as a guide in deepening your relationship with Christ.
HOW TO USE THIS PRAYER GUIDE
In light of our current series in the Letters of John, we have put together a 40-day prayer guide that will take you through 1 John. The book of 1 John is well-suited for a Lenten prayer focus, in that it invites us to examine the quality and depth of our communion with God, thereby exposing sin and reestablishing our relationship and assurance in Christ himself.
In this Lenten Prayer Guide, each day begins with a reading from 1 John for your meditation, followed by some questions for reflection or suggested points of prayer. A closing prayer is also supplied for each week.
In addition to the Lenten Prayer Devotional in 1 John, we have also included a Holy Week Prayer Guide that takes you through John 13-20. John’s Gospel is in many ways the foundation for John’s letters. The selected chapters focus on the final days of Jesus’ ministry, beginning with the Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17, and walking us through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. (For Holy Saturday, the devotion comes from Psalm 22).
The Holy Week guide is organized differently than the Lenten one, in that it involves reading larger portions of Scripture, and concludes each reading with a prayer of reflection.
These prayer devotionals are meant to be flexible in their use. Given the focus on deepening our personal relationship with God, they are designed primarily for personal use. But they can also be used for family devotions, in Home Groups or other small groups, and even corporate worship. You can access them online here, or download them as a pdf. You can also pick up a printed version at our church facility.
May the Living Word make himself known to you through his written Word this Lenten and Easter season, and may these guides be helpful as you seek to abide in Christ.