The Confused Protestant’s Guide to Lent. Plus 10 ideas for how to observe it.

A lot of us protestant types aren’t exactly experts on the subject of Lent. The continuum of lent awareness goes like this:

This post will only be helpful to the JV squad on the left side of that continuum. If you’re positioned more toward the right side you might want to consult an expert. Or leave a few comments here, correcting me as needed, and be our expert!

 The Basics

  • The word ‘Lent’ means springtime.
  • The practice dates back to the 4th century (at least).
  • It’s a 40 day period of fasting and reflection that leads up to Easter (actually 46 days, more on that later).
  • It begins on Ash Wednesday (more on that later, too), and ends on Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday

  • This is the kick-off to Lent, and there’s usually a worship service to go with it.
  • During the service ashes are put on the forehead of the worshipers (this is where most of us protestants start getting weirded out).
  • The ashes are supposed to be from the remains of burning the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. This is a varsity move that’s not always practiced.
  • In the Bible ashes are symbolic of mourning, mortality and repentance. This sets the tone for the season. Lent is all about remembering the sacrifice of our Suffering Saviour, and lining ourselves up with it in some small way.
  • Also, his is where other traditions like Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras have their roots (best I can tell our Catholic friends didn’t plan that part).


  • The 40 days of fasting corresponds to the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
  • Lent starts 46 days before Easter, though. Why? Because you don’t fast on Sundays. For a Christian every Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. So, during Lent there’s no fasting on the Sabbath, just feasting!
  • If you’re curious about how Catholics fast during Lent, this seems like a good place to look.

So, is there a place for Lent for protestant types like me? Absolutely!
Lent isn’t just a Catholic thing (a ton of Protestant traditions participate), it’s a Christian thing.

The practice is rich in more than just history and symbolism. It’s a truly meaningful way to prepare ourselves for the biggest celebration of the year, and to remind us of the sacrifices Jesus made for us.

What should I fast?

Protestants and Catholics alike are encouraged to fill in their own blanks here. My recommendation is to set something aside that will consistently remind you of the sufferings of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Follow the expert’s lead, and take the Catholic approach
  2. Do a Daniel fast
  3. Cut out a modern convenience that you use regularly (limit cell phone use, give your microwave a break, etc.)
  4. Cut out sweets (tough to define that one!)
  5. Stop drinking coffee, or other stimulants (tea, The Dew, Red Bull, etc)
  6. Don’t eat out for 40 days (bonus: will save  you cash!)
  7. Do this!
  8. I read about some guys who ate only hunger relief rations for Lent. What a great idea!
  9. Consider unplugging from social media (gasp!)
  10. What about shutting off that blasted TV? Or maybe just a show you watch daily (“Please, dear God, not Sportscenter!”).

Do one of those things. Do something else. Skip it if you want to…but please don’t be legalistic about it! Let me know how it goes.

  • Have you ever practiced Lent? How’d it go?
  • Any other suggestions of things to give up for Lent?

Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

If you think this will be helpful to your friends, hit one of the share options below and spread the word.

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21 Responses to “The Confused Protestant’s Guide to Lent. Plus 10 ideas for how to observe it.”

  1. david bartosik February 19, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    had a great conversation with the idea of fasting in the bible——do we see anyone do anything other than fast from food or drink? What becomes the defense for why we expand it beyond that- not that I am against it, but helping articulate to someone why it is okay to fast from “Facebook” or any other item outside food or drink. Thnks man!


    • Aaron February 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      David, good question. The only fasting in the Bible that I’m aware of is fasting food in some way. So you could build the argument that we should only fast that. But I’m inclined to say that we should start with that as our template…but perhaps be open to other things, too. Because the principle of fasting (choosing to remove something that consistently reminds us of what we’re doing and calls us to focused prayer) can be carried out other ways, too. Every time I choose to go to God instead of ‘that other thing’ is a win. And lots of people go to Facebook, for example, a lot more than they go to food. So I think it has its place.

      • Steve January 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

        fasting without prayer is just a diet :-) from what I can tell in the Bible, fasting meant, praying and seeking God right now is way more important that food:-)

    • julie February 14, 2015 at 11:31 pm #

      A minister once told me that If I truly believe that Christ died and rose for my sins and I have forgiveness i]I should all give up guilt for lent

  2. Dixiw February 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Have I ever practiced Lent… is the pope Catholic? haha well, so was I, so yes, yes I have. And seriously, it’s hard sometimes, but it’s such a great reminder of what Jesus has done…

    Funny story: in seventh grade I gave up soda, and even now I hardly ever drink it.

    And finally, with an intro like that, I still have to ask… funny hats?

    • Dixie February 19, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      …maybe this year I should give up spelling my name wrong.

    • Aaron February 19, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

      funny hats: you know, Cardinals and Bishops and the like…full garb including large funny hats.

      • Dixie February 19, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

        Ok, I’ve got it now. I thought you meant all Catholics… I was trying for my life to think of anyone who wore weird hats for Lent, like as a bizarre sign of penance, like a dunce cap, and I came up empty. But ok, mitres and galeros. Check.

    • Michelle P February 28, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

      Thats funny… back in 2007 I gave up Pop for lent, And I hardly ever drink it now either :)

  3. Sarah February 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    Having grown up in a town that was 80% Catholic, I still have a hard time with the current Protestant drive to observe Lent. I do actually think it’s an awesome idea; however, I get stuck because Lent always seemed like such a silly thing where I grew up. Everyone was always giving up candy and chocolate and soda and being so flippant and yet simultaneously pious about it. Here’s the bottom line for me: I love the idea of giving something up to spend more time with God, but I don’t love the idea of people advertising what they are giving up as a mark of holiness. Like you said, you have to keep the legalism at bay. (But secretly, I longed to be Catholic and take a confirmation name like the majority of my friends. And give up chocolate just so I could utter those delicious words, “I gave it up for Lent.”)

    • Aaron February 20, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

      Sarah, I agree with you. For some reason, Jesus’ commandment to be private about our fasting (Matthew 6:16) gets overlooked with Lent an awful lot. Perhaps because it’s typically done in community?

    • Evelyn Griffin February 13, 2013 at 7:16 am #

      I am Baptist and I have given up candy and cookies for Lent for about 5 years. The reason was a sermon of our Pastor who explained that giving up something we really liked and realizing when we wanted that thing the true sacrifice Christ made for us. It was a reminder to start a conversation with Him if nothing more than being silent and listening to Him for a change.
      I have no problem with people saying what they are giving up, it can be a conversation starter for a discussion of the “why” and whether it is causing that conversation to happen.
      The side effect of giving up these two sweets made me realized how addicts feel when they “quit cold turkey”. I have never smoked or been addicted to substances, so it was always easy to say..just give it up..dah. Talking to Christ during the hard first few days and be a great substitute for the substance…if it is nothing more me..take this craving from me..etc..
      Food for thought….Evelyn

      • Dave February 19, 2015 at 6:29 am #

        I agree with Evelyn. I’m not Catholic. I grew up going to a Presbyterian Church. I remember going to Church for Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, but not Ash Wednesday, so I never really understood Lent until I was older. I was about 21 or 22 when I practiced Lent for the first time, giving up red meat altogether. Since then, I’ve tried to practice Lent every year, adding something more or taking something more away each year. I live and work around a lot of people who are not religious. I myself am not that religious, but I do share a connection with God, so telling people what I’m giving up and even reminding people of what I’m doing during Lent is a good thing to me. It helps me with the struggle of quitting something (smoking in my case this year) by having a social crutch and also I hope that it gives some people food for thought (pun intended) about practicing the fast. I think even if someone is not religious, fasting can be a great thing for the mind and body.

  4. Gha-VO March 5, 2014 at 9:54 am #


    Stumbled across your article. Nice piece. I wanted to just shed some light from a Catholic’s point of view. I noticed some comments that might need some additional info. Aaron, hits it right on point, Matthew 6:16. When a person fasts, he fasts for the Lord and shouldn’t look like he’s suffering or struggling. It’s a personal dedication/sacrifice and normally that is the case. Now, right before Lent all my family and friends asks me what I am giving up. People don’t normally broadcast what they give up just to boast/show off. People share that because, well, that’s human nature. During Christmas, people ask “What did you get them for Christmas?” all the time, even though it’s suppose to be a surprise. Now there will always be exceptions. That’s when we start pray for those people who needs direction during this Lenten season and hope they understand its purpose.

    Basically what I’m saying, Lent is really a time to strengthen our personal relationship with the Lord, through prayer and fasting. I normally give up distractions (FB, Video games, binge TV watching and other social media) and a personal improvement (sweets, carbs or lose weight).

    Finally, I want to part with that we are all Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Negative opinions, name calling or bad-mouthing each other never helps. Luke 9:50

    Thank you and God Bless!

  5. Pius November 24, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    The Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome, of the Latin Rite, in full communion with His Holiness the Bishop of Rome, sees fit that meat and other such products be avoided during parts of lent. The doctrine of the church is that fasting is for the sake of spiritual need, but the post above is a deliberate misrepresentation or a simple misunderstanding of the Catholic Church. It believes and recommends in its catechism that all Catholic voluntarily avoid meat and fast.

    Hence, it is not a ‘fill in your own’ idea, but something based on spiritual need.

  6. Mary April 1, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

    I read an article about Lent one year that suggested giving up a bad attitude with the further goal to not pick it back up after Easter. I usually do an attitude and a food item. This year I added a fun thing I do (reading novels, doing puzzles, crocheting, computer games, etc) because I tend to overdo them like an addict.
    It’s so easy to get caught in legalism and forget to use these reminders to think of Jesus and his sacrifice for us. “Have mercy on us.”
    Thanks for explaining it for us, Aaron.


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