Updated: Feb 24
“…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These words give us perspective. Our grandiose imaginations of what we
hope to accomplish are tempered with the colors of realism. Our schemes
and strivings—always set on what’s next—receive boundaries. Our innate
idealism about the human spirit is hit with a dose of moderation. Whatever
hope we may have for this life, this biblical truth—that we are dust—forces
us to face the stark and sad reality that we live on borrowed time.
The painful reality of these words hinders us, not because it is the natural
state of things, but because it is the culmination of the curse that Adam
brought upon himself and all his descendants when he rebelled against
God. With Adam’s fall, the stage was set: “Therefore, just as sin came into
the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to
all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12).
This is the theological background of Ash Wednesday and Lent. Ash Wednesday is a day for “acknowledging our wretchedness.” This inaugurates the season of Lent, which reminds us of Jesus’s 40 days of temptation and fasting in the wilderness (see Matt.
Wednesday and Lent, we face the facts that our predicament is much more
serious than simply stating, “All good things must come to an end.” Rather,
we recognize that we are indicted as co-conspirators and under the
sentence of death. Ash Wednesday declares to us a need for rescue and
resurrection far greater than a fresh start or a second chance.
Two Unhelpful Approaches
There are different approaches to Ash Wednesday and Lent, but whatever
form observance takes in local churches, my main concern is with two
The first unhelpful approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is to be overly
penitential—to confuse wallowing with repentance. Repentance is a gift of
God that he gives graciously to all believers (Rom. 2:4). Furthermore, Lent
is a fitting time to seek reconciliation with those who are estranged (Gal.
The trouble comes when we become so introspective about our sin that we
function as if repentance merits forgiveness. This again leads to self-
trust—the belief that the degree of our penitence serves as a barometer for
what God thinks of us.
Second and more common is the asceticism approach—fasting for 40
days. The common items people give up for Lent sound uncomfortably
like a contemporary crash diet—no red meat, sugar, alcohol, etc. I don’t
question the motivation here—indeed, such fasts are still intended to focus
on Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. But I contend that they don’t lead to
spiritual maturity because they allow us to maintain control. We choose
what to give up and attempt to white-knuckle our way through the 40 days.
This asceticism doesn’t lead to spiritual growth because it doesn’t provide
space for faith. Instead, it provokes self-reliance. As Paul warns, “These
have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and
asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the
indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).
An Alternative Approach
Instead of these unhelpful practices, I’d like to provide an alternative
approach that centers us on the finished work of Jesus in a way that
actually meets us in the depths of our need. Ultimately, Lent can be a
beautiful season in the church year that leads us to face the reality of our
sin and fallen frailty. The ashes proclaim to us a word of reality—a word
that curbs our pride: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). When that
happens, Lent provides the space for us to trust not in our own merits, but
in the merits of Jesus, saying with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to
me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). This cry for mercy doesn’t wallow in
introspective ultra-penitence; it’s confident in divine grace: “I tell you, this
man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
In this way, Lent speaks a word of mercy in our suffering. Contrary to
asceticism, we don’t choose how we suffer, and therefore we’re forced to
recognize we are not in control. Suffering then becomes the space in our
lives in which faith must be strengthened. The pressures we would gladly
be rid of show no end in sight—certainly not in 40 days. When we give
something up for a time, we might look for help, but as sinners and
sufferers, we look for resurrection, and that is true faith and true hope.
Practically, this looks like placing a high emphasis not on wallowing but on
the means by which God has promised to give life to the dead and
dying—to hear the gospel preached at church, knowing it’s God’s means of
creating faith and new life (Rom. 10:17). It means feeding on Jesus in the
Lord’s Supper as he promises in John 6:54–56: “Whoever feeds on my
flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last
day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds
on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
All throughout the year, God uses these means of grace to cause us to
“become accustomed to change, to see beyond the shadow of death and
hear a hymn in which hope and history rhyme: as in the gospel God is …
the one who promises beyond the possible.” It’s here—when we face our
sin and suffering—that our ears are tuned to such promises, to the hymn of
Good Friday and Easter: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever
believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and
believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Ash Wednesday and Lent
can lead us to await this hymn with sure joy and certain hope.
 The 1662 Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacrament
and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter
as they are to be sung or said in churches; and the form or manner of
making, ordaining, and consecrating of bishops, priests, and deacons,
International Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 87
 The 1662 BCP, International Edition, 89
 Jonathan A. Linebaugh, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022), 23