40: The number of God for the change of life


Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the start of the 40 days of Lent. For reasons unknown to us, the span 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 sent 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 after his resurrection before returning to heaven.

The common thread connecting all of these is that each 40 day or year period was associated with something new – a new development in the history of God’s activity or new beginnings. In other words, God has led people through various “40” seasons – usually days, but sometimes years – with the goal of ushering in a new era or season in their lives. Forty days to make a difference. Forty days to change. Forty days for one chapter of life to end and another to begin.

In the Bible, each new chapter of God’s work was initially marked by a certain period of time related to 40:

  • The purification of the world’s evil by the flood
  • The journey of the people of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land
  • The whole 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 the change of life raging through a person, community, nation, or world – you discover that the angel number 40 has always been at the heart of her heart. This is why throughout Christian history the 40 days have taken on special significance, especially during the time of Lent.

Word Loaned comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word which simply means the spring season of the year. In Christian history and tradition, it is a time in the spring for fasting in a certain way (giving up something for spiritual reasons) in preparation for Easter and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Traditionally, it begins on Ash Wednesday, which is the Wednesday that falls 40 days before Easter. The purpose of Lent has always been clear: to prepare spiritually. Use the time to change your life by taking 40 days to turn away from something or turn to something that will allow your life to honor God more deeply and live the life you have been called to live.

In other words, take 40 days and use it for your resurrection.

There is nothing unique or special about doing something like this only during the Lent season. What is special is the number 40 itself – the length, the period of time. Have you done a “40” tune before? Have you set aside 40 days to make sure you do what God wants, to prepare to do what God wants, or to tackle something in your life so that you live as God wants?

Have you ever taken 40 days to fast on something, to turn to something, or to pray for something that you know is essential to who you are and who you become? Have you ever taken 40 days to become a different person, to chart a new path, to chart a new course? Forty days to end a bad habit or start a good habit?

If you spend some time digging into studies of human behavior, you’ll find that 40-day periods have started 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 ongoing study. For many years, research has shown that if you wanted to change anything in your life – to end a habit or start a new one – it would only take three weeks. Thus, all marketing strategies have focused on the number 21 to break a habit or start a new one.

But we’ve learned that it’s not really the best number to get something to stick with. For some reason, 21 days just isn’t enough. In fact, research has now shown that it takes twice as long – not three weeks, but rather six weeks – which is roughly… you guessed it… 40 days.

Studies now show that if you stick with something for six to eight weeks, it will settle down somewhere around the 40 day mark. You will have established a new habit for your life. Research seems to show that 40 is really the key to life changing. So whether the goal is to start something or stop something, to think deeply about something, or to completely remove something harmful from your vision, 40 days will be enough.

It could be 40 days without eating carbs. Forty days of absence on social networks. Forty days without online games. Forty days without reading anything about someone related to the latest celebrity “it”. But it’s not just about going without Something. It could be something that you to add to your life. Forty days with exercise. Forty days of reading. Forty days of prayer. Forty days of financial trust in God.

No matter what it is, if you want to experience a life change – real life change – give it 40 days.

Did I mention yesterday was Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent?

James Emery White


This is an excerpt from James Emery White’s ebook, 40: God’s number of life changing, available here.

Ben D. Gardner, “Busting the 21 Days Habit Formation Myth,” UCL London’s Global University, June 29, 2012, to be read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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