Why we need Lent
Ash Wednesday, this year on 14 February, marks the start of the forty-day period of Lent that runs up to Easter Day. Some Christians follow a longstanding tradition of fasting during Lent; denying themselves something – chocolate, alcohol or even social media – that is good but not essential. Today, this whole idea strikes some people as bizarre but in fact the idea of Lent and fasting has perhaps never been more relevant.
Our modern culture is fixated not simply on having things, but on having them now. Advertisements encourage us not to save but to buy on credit and have what we want immediately: instant food, instant messaging, real-time meetings and instant downloads of music, films or books. We don’t ‘do’ waiting anymore. Whether it is food, pleasure or possessions, we expect to have them all now.
Yet there is something very dangerous about this demand for ‘instant gratification’ and it’s not just Christians who say so. The reality is that all good things (whether food, pleasure or possessions) are truly at their best when they are taken at the right time. Intentionally delaying a pleasure (and that’s what fasting in Lent is all about) is a wise thing. The ability to postpone our gratification may actually be critical to making us fulfilled human beings. After all, if we want our pleasures now, we are going to struggle with things like learning to play the piano or acquiring a foreign language where it may be months before we can tap out a tune or engage in a meaningful conversation on holiday.
Postponing a pleasure may even have been fundamental in making the human race what it is. A great breakthrough in history was when people realised that instead of eating grains of wheat or rice they could plant them and wait a few months until the crops sprang up. The discovery of cultivation allowed settlements, farms and ultimately civilisation to flourish.
It’s not just history that teaches us about the disadvantages of instant gratification; there is also some hard psychological evidence on the subject. In the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in the 1970s a group of four-year-old children took part in a psychological study. Each child was given one marshmallow and promised that, if they could wait twenty minutes before eating it, they would be given a second one. Some children could wait the twenty minutes and others couldn’t. Records were kept and sixteen years later children were revisited; those who had been able to delay eating were found to score significantly higher in academic tests. The ability to say ‘no, not now’ seems to be vital to both civilisation and education.
Lent helps us to learn to say ‘no, not now’; it teaches us self-control and an expectation and an anticipation of what God may reveal to us. Lent isn’t just a human exercise but a sacred discipline.
Rev. Canon J. John