My Take: Snap out of spiritual slump with Lent
Catholics traditionally mark the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, but Lent is for Protestants too, Mark Batterson writes.
April 3rd, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Snap out of spiritual slump with Lent

Editor's Note: Mark Batterson is lead pastor at the National Community Church in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day,” “Wild Goose Chase” and “Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity.”

By Mark Batterson, Special to CNN

When I was a seminary student, my wife and I went to downtown Chicago for a taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” When the producer came out to prep us for the show, I was embarrassed for him because he had dirt on his forehead. Didn’t he look in the mirror that morning? Why didn’t someone tell him? My embarrassment for him turned into embarrassment for myself when I discovered it was Ash Wednesday and the dirt on his forehead was actually ashes that symbolized the day of repentance that begins Lent.

I grew up going to a wide variety of Protestant churches, but none of them practiced or even mentioned Lent. It wasn’t until a few years ago, well into my tenure as lead pastor of National Community Church, that I discovered the value of Lent. It has since become a meaningful season in the cycle of my spiritual life. During the last few Lenten seasons, I’ve incorporated a fast into my routine. One year I gave up television. Another year I gave up soda. I’ve also done a variety of food fasts for Lent.

In my experience, giving something up for Lent has made the Easter celebration far more meaningful and even helped me develop the spiritual discipline of fasting. Fasting during Lent has helped me identify with the sacrifices Christ has made for me, and it’s also helped me focus on the reason for the season. The celebration of the resurrection of Christ has become far more meaningful since I started observing Lent.

The church I pastor is a rather non-traditional Protestant church. We are absolutely orthodox in theology but a little unorthodox in practice. We meet in five different theaters around the metro D.C. area. We own and operate a coffeehouse on Capitol Hill that gives all of its net profits to local community projects and humanitarian causes in other countries.

Along with new innovations, however, we’ve also rediscovered the value the ancient traditions. While we may not practice Lent the same way the Catholic church does, we are reinventing it in a way that is meaningful to us. We put our unique fingerprint on those traditions, and that keeps them from being empty rituals.

I’m afraid that many Protestant churches have a very short-term memory. For them, church history only goes back to the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. While we may have our theological differences, we share a long history, and I believe there are things that Protestant and Catholic churches can learn from each other in ways that don’t compromise their core beliefs.

I for one am thankful for the Lenten tradition that has been cultivated, celebrated and cherished within the Catholic church. I think more Protestant churches will re-adopt some of those traditions that are part of our common church history from before the Protestant Reformation.

I think of Lent as a spiritual pre-season of sorts. The six Sundays leading up to Easter are considered mini-Easters. Like pre-season games, they prepare us for the ultimate celebration in Christendom: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And one of the benefits, not unlike the Advent celebration surrounding Christmas, is that the celebration is extended to a longer period of time.

A few years ago I came up with a formula for spiritual growth: change of pace + change of place = change of perspective.

Let me explain what it means.

The key to spiritual growth is developing healthy and holy routines. They are called spiritual disciplines. But once the routine becomes routine, you need to disrupt the routine via a change of pace or change of place. Why? Because sacred routines can become empty rituals if you forget why you started doing them in the first place.

I’m certainly not suggesting that routines are bad. Most of us practice a morning ritual that includes showering, brushing our teeth and putting on deodorant. On behalf of your family and friends, continue practicing those routines.

But here’s the spiritual catch-22: good routines can become bad routines if we don’t change the routine. When you start going through the motions spiritually, it’s time to mix up the routine. And Lent is a great opportunity for a natural change of pace.

Lent disrupts the status quo. It can get us out of an old routine and into a new routine.

In physical exercise, routines eventually become counterproductive. If you exercise your muscles the same way every time you work out, your muscles start adapting and stop growing. You need to disorient your muscles by changing your routine. And the same is true spiritually.

When I’m in a spiritual slump, I often snap out of it by a change of pace or a change of place. And it was Jesus who modeled this practice. He would often walk the beach or climb a mountain. I think those changes in geography are not disconnected from the practice of spirituality. It is a simple change of place that precipitates many of the epiphanies that happen in Scripture.

To snap out of a slump, sometimes all it takes is a small change in routine. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter or nursing home. Start keeping a gratitude journal. Get plugged into a small group or Bible study. Take a day off and do a personal retreat. Or just get up a little earlier in the morning and spend a little extra time with God.

One of the small changes in routine that has helped me rejuvenate me is picking up a new translation of Scripture. New words help me think new thoughts. And while you can institute those changes at any time, Lent is a perfect excuse to mix up your spiritual routine.

Why not leverage Lent by mixing up your routine? If you do, you’ll celebrate Easter like you never have before.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Batterson

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Lent • Opinion • Protestant

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soundoff (834 Responses)
  1. jenn

    You want to make a real sacrifice for God? Try fasting as Muslims do. Which is the way lent was originally intended to be followed before weak people changed the rules.

    April 3, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • troy

      Fast the way Muslims do? You mean how they gorge themselves after sundown?

      April 3, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • jenn

      It is more of a sacrifice to go all day without food water, cursing and complaining than to give up something trivial like Facebook or chocolate. I would think that it creates a better appreciation for what we do have. But hey for most people its just too hard, why bother right

      April 3, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Ernie

      I did just like the muslims do during ramadan but not the whole month, only for the duration of the whole Holy Week.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • hopemac

      You mean the way the early Christians did. Cstianity was around 600 years before Islam. Some Catholics still fast from sun up to sun down. The Coptic Christians do it.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Jeanine

      Why give up anything if you're not going to do what's right in the first place?

      April 3, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  2. mommers

    CNN, Is this your headline story today? Really? And there's nothing much about the Libya war? Maybe it's not going well and you are protecting Obama, as usual? Or is this religious out-reach really the most important story of the day? Yesterday Muslims, today protestants and catholics, maybe tomorrow it's Hindus or Mormons or whatever? Are you going to be fair to them all? Is this a reaction for all the accusations you get that you carry water for the muslims?

    April 3, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • SoldiersDad

      Obviously the product of the teabag nation.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  3. Fake god

    Religion is all about brainwash and a bunch of gullible and/or violent people.

    April 3, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  4. Fake god

    I left the church since I had met mt pastor at a gay foam party.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  5. Band together people

    The problem is neither theism nor atheism nor agnosticism, it's the human mind caught up in taking too seriously it's own categories of good and bad, female and male, Republican and Democrat, etc. Truth is this very moment beyond concept. Humanity is ensnared by it's own thought processes and identifications of "I," "me," and "mine." The world is insane because we're an insane species continually taking our arbitrary beliefs to be reality. If only we quiet our minds more can we discover truth within and save ourselves from the madness of over thinking things. Even people who espouse no radical ideologies are not exempt from this insanity. Fortunately, people are more and more distrusting polarizing positions like Democrat vs. Republican, I'm right vs, you're wrong, religion vs. science, gay vs. straight, etc.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • kyle

      Excellent reply.. Watch the Quantum Activist and see what you think. Quantum mechanics will totally rewrite the human paradigm called belief.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  6. gary


    god is pretend, and too much evil has been and is done because of this delusion

    April 3, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  7. L. Ron Hubbard's twin sister

    Well, Lent is good for one thing. Cheap fish!

    April 3, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  8. faulkner

    other christian sects celebrate lent not just catholics ... stop being so misinformed and blind ...

    April 3, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  9. mccurdyca

    That's my pastor I love NCC

    April 3, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  10. chef dugan

    Observing the reason for Easter is fine if you believe Jesus was really raised from the dead. Whether or not He was is still a mystery. I happen to believe He was but only to prove there might be life after death. All that garbage about dying for our sins is just that, garbage. Organized religion could do mankind a great favor by just going away forever. God what a relief that would be! And so many fewer deaths to contend with as well.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  11. Fake god

    Thanks to Pastor Long Dong, we now know christians are BS.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  12. SoldiersDad

    The Lent observed by Catholics in the US is laughable. I'm a recovering Catholic in the richest country in the world that still has homeless people and hungry kids. But a corporation like GE paid nothing in taxes to the nation that made it great. A Catholic community that does not cry out to stop this inequality and injustice, remains silent while Americans travel around the world to participate in wars of aggression, watches as workers are stripped of collective bargaining and celebrates politicians that strip programs for American people and the poor while enriching the top 2 % of Americans is not a Catholic Community at all. But they engage in this Lenten tomfoolery every year, giving up things like Cigarettes, Jack Daniels, Bordeaux or butter on their bread. Symbolism over substance as their avatar, Limbaugh, says. How many Catholics have heard of Maximillian Kolbe or better yet, Dorothy Day who said "if you own two coats, one belongs to the poor."? Lent indeed. Being a Christian or Catholic is an every day obligation. It's walking the walk, not just talking the talk. How many are willing to be REAL Catholics?

    April 3, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  13. WarriorsMk2u

    I'm shocked that this guy doesn't know that it is most of Christianity that observes Lent. Lent did not disappear with the Reformation.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • SoldiersDad

      I don't see anyone observing Lent. Oh, you mean the people who eat fish on Friday in the fancy downtown restaurant at 25 bucks a plate while the guy on the steam vent across the street eats discarded pretzels from the trash bin.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  14. Fake god

    If you are catholic/christian, you are either a fool or a sham.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Alan

      The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
      1 Cor 1:18

      April 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  15. Zargoth

    Hey, let's all snap out of our spiritual & moral slump & stop talking to skygods who are not there & start taking care of each other & this world like we are supposed to in the best parts of all of these religions...

    Anyone up for that?

    April 3, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • kyle

      I am game, unfortunately that is hard work for most and its easier giving up soda or candy bars.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  16. Reality

    If you are so desirous to display your religious beliefs, why not wear ashes every day????

    April 3, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • NotAFanoftheRCC

      Good question, friend. Christendom now seems to equate piety with giving up soda.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • CSG

      Because every day we carry the message of Lent in our hearts: "Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." We only wear an outward symbol of this at the beginning of the Lenten season as a tradition to mark the beginning a time of deeper self-reflection and penance.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Danny

      Reality, clearly you didn't read this article. Why bother to comment?
      The author said that one of the reason he practices lent is to have a break from routine religious activities. If he were to wear ash on his forehead every day. Shouldn't that just negate what he is trying to achieve?

      April 3, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  17. Carrie

    Refreshing perspective. I enjoyed it!

    April 3, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  18. person

    I'm surprised this article didn't mention that Catholic isn't the only religion that celebrates Lent. To me, that's a pretty significant oversight.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  19. galvanized

    While the author may have attended a number of Protestant churches he apparently had never attended any mainline ones. The United Methodist Church (in which I was raised) observes Lent and the rest of the Christian calendar as does the Episcopal Church, the various Lutheran sects (my mother was raised Lutheran), the Presbyterian Church and the various Orthodox churches. For a Christian, his ignorance of the Christian calendar is really quite astounding; has he also never heard of Epiphany? Pentecost? Advent?

    April 3, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Peter G

      And what about Ramadan?
      Muslims fast too. It brings you together as a cult.
      Brainwashing is enhanced by fasting as it affects the brain.
      Time to realize that you are being lied to.
      Unquestioning followers are totally PERFECT for anyone needing money, prestige, power, influence, acceptance, etc.
      Con-games thousands of years old are not any more legitimate just because they are well-entrenched.
      Read up on con-games, people! You'll see some obvious tricks, but your unquestioning belief in what others say is and always will be your downfall. Gullible people are prime targets. Lambs to the slaughter. Every single one.

      April 3, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • teresa, ohio

      @ peter: and what is keeping you from being slaughtered along with us? your mere unbelief? : )

      April 3, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  20. crystal

    Thank you for this great article. I too celebrate Lent even though I'm not Catholic & it definitely reminds me of the reason behind the season. I figure to give up something for a short period of time is the least I can do for the Savior who gave up His life for me.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:47 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.