The significance of the 40 days leading up to Easter
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent. For reasons unknown to us, the length of 40—whether 40 days or 40 years—has been significant throughout biblical history:
• The great flood lasted 40 days.
• Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days before he brought down the Ten Commandments.
• The establishment of the Kingdom of Israel was founded on its first three kings—Saul, David and Solomon—and each ruled for exactly 40 years.
• The prophet Elijah fasted for 40 days.
• Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days.
• Jesus walked the earth for 40 days following His resurrection before returning to heaven.
The common thread tying all of these together is that each period of 40 days or years was associated with something new—a new development in the history of God’s activity or new beginnings. In other words, God led people into various seasons of “40”—usually days, but sometimes years—for the purpose of inaugurating a new era or a new season in their life. Forty days to turn things around. Forty days to change. Forty days to have one chapter of life end and another begin.
In the Bible, every new chapter of God’s work was marked, at the onset, by some period of time related to 40:
• The cleansing of evil from the world through the flood
• The journey of the people of Israel out of bondage and into the Promised Land
• The entire prophetic era
• The beginning of the public ministry of Jesus
• The birth of the church
It’s a fascinating thing to explore. In each chapter of God breaking out anew—of seeing life change raging through a person, a community, a nation or a world—you find that the number 40 has always been at its heart. This is why throughout Christian history, 40 days has taken on a special significance, particularly through the season of Lent.
The word Lent comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word that simply means the spring season of the year. In Christian history and tradition, it is a period in the spring set aside for fasting in some way (giving up something for spiritual reasons) in preparation for Easter and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Traditionally, it starts on Ash Wednesday, which is the Wednesday that falls 40 days before Easter. The purpose for Lent has always been clear: to get spiritually ready. To use the time for life change by taking 40 days to turn away from something or turn towards something that will allow your life to honor God more deeply and to live the life you’ve been called to live.
In other words, take 40 days and use it for your resurrection.
There’s nothing unique or special about doing something like this only during the season of Lent. What is special is the number 40 itself—the length, the time period. Have you ever done a “40” focus before? Have you set aside 40 days to be sure you’re doing what God wants, to prepare yourself to do what God wants, or to address something in your life so that you’re living the way God wants?
Have you ever taken 40 days to fast from something, to turn toward something, or to pray about something you know is critical to who you are and who you are becoming? Have you ever taken 40 days to become a different person, to set a new path, to chart a new course? Forty days to end a bad habit or to start a good habit?
If you spend some time digging into studies of human behavior, you’ll find that 40-day periods have begun to surface all over the place. It’s as if human behavior—or at least our understanding of it—has finally caught up with the Bible in terms of the studies now being done. For many years, research found if you wanted to change something in your life—to end a habit or start a new one—it would take just three weeks. So, all of the marketing strategies were focused on the number 21 to break a habit or form a new one.
But we’ve learned that’s not really the best number to get something to stick. For whatever reason, 21 days simply isn’t enough. In fact, research has now found that it takes twice that length—not three weeks, but more like six weeks—which comes out at right about … you guessed it … 40 days.
Studies now show if you stick with something for six to eight weeks, that somewhere around the 40-day mark it will set in. You will have established a new habit for your life. Research seems to be showing that 40 really is the key to life change. So, whether the goal is to start something or stop something, reflect deeply on something or remove something harmful from your vision completely, 40 days is what it will take.
It could be 40 days without eating carbs. Forty days off of social media. Forty days without online games. Forty days without reading anything about anyone tied to the latest “it” celebrity. But it’s not just about going without something. It can be about something that you add to your life. Forty days with exercise. Forty days of reading. Forty days with prayer. Forty days of trusting God financially.
No matter what it is, if you want to experience life change—real life change—give it 40 days.
Did I mention yesterday was Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent?
This article originally appeared on ChurchAndCulture.org and is reposted here by permission.
This is an excerpt from the ebook by James Emery White, 40: God’s Number of Life Change, available here.
Ben D. Gardner, “Busting the 21 Days Habit Formation Myth,” UCL London’s Global University, June 29, 2012, read online.