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Ashes gently rubbed on the forehead in the shape of a cross—it’s a somber image that signifies the beginning of Lent. This 40-day period of prayer, fasting, and reflection before Easter commences on Ash Wednesday.

The ashen cross, a symbol of grief over sin, has caused dissonance among many Christians. Some see it as taking a spiritual posture of humility and reverence. Others see it as a man-made ritual that distracts from the finished work on the cross.

But setting aside the differing views of Ash Wednesday for a moment, you can find something powerful in the historical practice of wearing ashes. Before the establishment of the Church, ashes reflected the fiercest pain of the heart—a lament so strong that only charred remnants could come close to communicating the depths of grief.

Ruminating on the meaning of ashes from a biblical standpoint can help prepare the heart for Easter—regardless of whether you observe Ash Wednesday or Lent—and give believers a greater desire to spread the hope of the gospel.

The Biblical Purpose of Ashes

Wearing ashes was a common symbol of mourning and repentance in early history. Putting on sackcloth—a rough and uncomfortable garment—and fasting often accompanied the act of wearing ashes.

Sometimes, a person wore ashes when experiencing a wrong caused by someone else.

When Amnon raped his sister, “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went (2 Samuel 13:19).” When Mordecai learned of the plot to destroy the Jews, “he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly (Esther 4:1).”

Other times, a person wore ashes while repenting for sin.

When Jonah told the Ninevites that God would destroy the city because of their sin, the king of Nineveh put on sackcloth, sat in ashes, and ordered the people to call out to God. “‘Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish (Jonah 3:9).’” Daniel also asked God to forgive the Israelites for their sin, pleading “in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes (Daniel 9:3).”

In some Bible translations, the word “dust” is used instead of “ashes.” This harkens back to Genesis when God formed man out of dust (Genesis 2:7) and said to Adam, “‘dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19),’” after the fall. Wearing dust (or ashes) indicated humility and served as a reminder of man’s mortality.

Ashes were not a means to receiving God’s justice or forgiveness but rather an outward expression of an inward condition. Ashes were the recognition of the immense pain and destruction that sin causes.

Godly Grief

Today, ashes are not a common adornment to express grief in Western culture. People may wear black or put on a veil but likely won’t go for a bucket of soot by the fireplace.

Interestingly, ashes were also absent where humanity saw the greatest example of sin’s destructive consequences—the cross. God’s Son, who had never sinned Himself, was murdered for the wrongs that others had committed. That was the perfect reason to grieve.

And yet, the Bible doesn’t say that anyone put on ashes for Jesus’s death—not to mourn their sin or the injustice done to Christ.

Do you mourn the sin that led to the crucifixion?

Yes, for those who are in Christ, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). There is no need to dwell in the shame and guilt of sin if you have received God’s free gift of forgiveness through Jesus.

But even Paul lamented over his sin. Before writing of the hope of Christ in Romans 8, Paul called himself “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin (Romans 7:14).”

“For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. … Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” -Romans 7:18-19, 21-24

By allowing the full weight of his sin to settle upon his heart, Paul was not wallowing in disgrace but rather preparing himself for the complete magnificence of God’s grace. He reflected on his sin but then immediately turned his eyes to Christ, saying, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:25)!”

The recognition of our sin is meant to open our eyes to the unfathomable love of God. How often do believers marvel at the miracle of the resurrection without giving one thought to the reason Jesus went to the grave in the first place? The light of the good news shines so much brighter when believers understand the deep darkness of sin. The purposeful lament of our fallen nature paves the path to a fuller appreciation for Jesus’ sacrifice.

Taking it one step further, this lament also opens the heart to ache for a world that is unaware of God’s love. The cross is not even a concept for billions of people who have no knowledge of Jesus and what He did for them.

Do you mourn for those who have never heard the gospel?

If the Church does not grieve for lost souls, the Church will not move to reach them with the message of hope.

You don’t have to physically wear ashes. But the spiritual posture of grieving sin—breaking your heart for the things that break God’s—can intensify your worship for the One who saved you from your path to destruction and awaken your resolve to tell the world about it.

As R. C. Sproul said, “The gospel is only good news when we understand the bad news.” Understand the bad news, immediately rejoice in the good news, and then take God’s light to those still living in darkness.