Practicing Self-Denial: Examining Lent and Leviticus 16


In my journey through the Old Testament book of Leviticus, I find it no coincidence that I read chapter 16 the day after Ash Wednesday when the season of Lent begins. Leviticus 16 shares the expectations for the day of atonement, including several sacrifices and a time to recognize the gravity of reconciliation.

What does this tell me about God:

  • God calls his people to periods of self-denial.

I have always been curious about the observation of lent, though I was not raised in a home that practiced it. I know people who practice fasting and self-denial in a worshipful way, as a journey of recognizing Jesus sacrifice on the cross. I have also known people who observe lent as a “self-help” regiment. A time to better oneself, avoid vices like chocolate, Facebook, or french fries. I can see how lent can be a dangerous observation for a Christian, promoting legalism and works-based gospel when observed incorrectly. However, from my readings in Leviticus 16, I find that God values the act of self-denial, in fact, He commands it:

Atonement will be made for you on this day to cleanse you, and you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you must practice self-denial; it is a permanent statute. (vs. 30-31)

  • God requires the death of a sacrifice, not self-denial, to atone for sin.

Please don’t miss this. Read Leviticus 16 again. Twenty-eight verses are dedicated to the importance of the sacrifice: Aaron must sacrifice a bull to atone for his sin before he can mediate for the sins of the people (v. 6). He must then kill a male goat to pay for the sins of the people. The blood of that goat also purifies the most holy place from the sin of the people. It is the blood that makes the people and the tabernacle once again, set-apart.

The same is true in our relationship with God. It is Christ’s blood that sets us free from our sin nature, that pays the penalty we deserve for our rebellion. The only part we play in salvation is making the decision to trust in Christ’s death, and even God is the one who guides us to make that decision!

Long story short: we “are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

How can I live in light of this:

  • I can practice self-denial to honor Jesus’ sacrifice.

Leviticus prescribed self-denial as a chance for the people to abstain from work, pleasure, and food for one day in order to commemorate the great restorative work that was taking place on their behalf.

We can observe lent in the same way.

It is not a diet.

It is not a period to achieve higher enlightenment through self-discipline.

It is not a means to be more righteous or closer to God (those things are achieved through Christ’s death, not our efforts).

It is not an opportunity to lose weight or have a better family life or make a difference in the world.

It is not about us! In fact, it’s not even about others. Pope Francis recently called Christians to observe a fasting from indifference, which I agree is needed. However, observing lent with the goal of putting others first still misses the big idea. Leviticus shows us that self-denial is about God!

God’s call here is about focus. Remove distractions. Pursue greater consciousness of the cleansing that is happening. Make room in your mind, your schedule, your habits for awareness of Jesus.

How does His sacrifice affect my life?

How can I praise Him, thank Him, elevate Him with greater consistency?

What can I remove from my life for a few weeks that will be a constant reminder to meditate on His sacrifice?

I am such an amateur when it comes to fasting. I am terribly addicted to food, more so for its taste than it’s nourishment and sustainability for my body. The Israelites were called to fast for one day. Eventually, I would like to train my body to truly fast from all foods for a specific length of time.

Right now though, I am a nursing mother, and that would not be wise, nor is it specifically God’s call on my life. But I do sense God calling me to practice this idea of self-denial in this season leading up to Easter. I have decided to give up 3 things that I turn to daily in my life for release, escape, comfort, and rejuvenation: chocolate, Facebook, and Pinterest.

I have deleted the apps from my phone, and will only log on to Facebook for ministry upkeep reasons on my desktop. I have bagged up all the chocolate in the house (sorry Shane), and shoved it into the garage freezer with a reminder for me to follow Jesus, to crave Him more than I do the sweet notes of left-over Valentine’s candy.

Other thoughts or questions:

  • I am floored that we have access to the mercy seat and the Holy of Holies at all times now because of Jesus sacrifice. (For more on this, read Matthew 27:51, and Hebrews chapters 7-10).

How are you planning to practice self-denial to be more aware of how Jesus’ sacrifice affects your everyday life?