Lent refers to the period of 40 days that comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. It begins on Ash Wednesday and is a season of reflection and preparation before the celebration of Easter which focuses on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In this period, Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the desert for 40 days in their pursuit to follow in the footsteps of their Master and Savior. Lent closely looks at the events in the life of Christ leading to His crucifixion.
In the book of Joel, God calls the nation of Israel to fast and seek His face. He defines the right approach they were to take and what would make their fast meaningful. As we begin this period of Lent, let us reflect on what God said to the people of Israel about seeking Him.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” Joel 2:12–13
Let us prayerfully consider how to return to God and why we should return to Him.
Return to the Lord with All Your Heart
The Lord does not want half-hearted devotion, neither is He pleased with it. As God gives warning to the nation of Israel about the coming judgment and the day of the Lord, He calls them to repentance.
True fasting begins with honest repentance, brought about by acknowledging the Holiness of the Lord and our own sinfulness as human beings. It comes from a realization that, apart from Him (God), we can do nothing (John 15:5).
But real fasting also happens when we recognize that: (i) Nothing is hidden from the sight of the Lord (Hebrews 4:13), and that (ii) All our righteousness are like filthy rags before Him (Isaiah 64:6). So, these truths ought to humble us down and bring us to our knees.
Return to the Lord with Fasting
Fasting is something every believer is supposed to practice in their spiritual life. When Jesus taught about fasting, He used the phrase “When you fast...” not an “If you fast…” statement (Matthew 6:16-18). In these verses, Jesus emphasizes not just the importance of fasting but also the motive and purpose of the fast.
The greatest reason anyone of us should give for fasting, ought to be our love for the Lord. We are seeking Him and want to spend time with him. When we are seeking the Lord’s face, our approach to Him must be on His terms, not on ours. It should be in a way that is holy and acceptable to Him (Romans 12:1).
Return to the Lord with Weeping and Mourning
Grief and sorrow are both expressions of mourning. The Lord here, calls the people of Israel to return to Him but with mourning and weeping. It is not because they have lost someone, but because of their sins. We need to repent by weeping over our sins and how it has affected our every relationship. We need to demonstrate that we are tired of sinning by mourning and being sorrowful over our sins.
We are called to return to the Lord with brokenness and total submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
The kind of repentance that the Lord desires of us can be found in Psalm 51. Here, king David comes in all humility, brokenness, and a sorrowful heart after Nathan the prophet confronted him of his sins. Our weeping and mourning should not be a spectacle, it must come from the heart, a heart tired of following its own ways and turning to seek rest in the Lord.
Return to the Lord by Rending Your Heart
In the Old Testament, when Israel sinned, they would tear their clothes to show God how sorry they were for the sins they committed before Him. This became a ritual and an outward practice with no penitence of the heart. God calls the nation of Israel to tear their hearts open, and not their garments.
True repentance comes from a changed heart, not from outward practices. What I do on the outside does not have the power to change my inward disposition, but a transformation that happens on the inside changes everything about a person.
God is saying, “I don’t want your rituals, I want your heart”. Let us not just do things for the sake of it when we don’t mean it at all. This is what was happening in Israel (Isaiah 58:1-14).
Return to the Lord Because Of Who He Is
In verse 13, we can learn four reasons why we can and should return to the Lord. Our motive should not be to expect anything from God when we come to Him. We ought to come to God to joyfully serve Him for who He is.
(i) He is gracious: He willingly and lavishly gives us what we don’t deserve. We do not deserve God’s forgiveness, but He granted it to us on account of His Son.
(ii) He is merciful: Mercy is God withholding from us what we rightfully deserve from Him as a just and holy God. God then gives us what we do not deserve (His grace/ forgiveness).
According to Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23, we are all sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory and therefore deserve death as a payment for our sin. But through His mercy, God withholds the death we deserve and places it on His Son, Jesus Christ and grants us life in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
(iii) He is slow to anger: This is the patient forbearance of God where He does not destroy sinners immediately as they sin. He patiently waits and extends His grace, albeit temporarily, because He doesn’t want anyone to perish, but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). We need to know that His judgment will come upon us (maybe now or later) and that we need to be ready for His return.
(iv) He is abounding in steadfast love: God loves His people with an everlasting love. “… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). The steadfast love of God for us is what took Jesus Christ to the Cross.
As we go through this period of Lent, may our prayers come from a broken and contrite heart, and also from a life yielded to the Lordship of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us not go through this period as a ritual we perform every year but as an opportunity to not only seek the face of God but also proclaim Him Crucified for the sins of the world.
Photo by Robin from flickr