When You Fast…
Did you know that our Lord Jesus Christ assumed that His disciples would fast, just as He assumed they would pray? Jesus commended fasting as a private act of humility and devotion to God (see Matthew 6:16-18). Note particularly that he says, “When you fast…” not “If you fast…” Take a look at Matthew 9:14-15. The first Christians fasted (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). Why shouldn’t a twenty-first century Christian do likewise? Why?
Because we are, as a culture and society, gluttons. After all, we are a “consumer” society. We consume, consume and consume some more. We eat to the point that our bellies are too large, we weigh too much, and we inflict chronic illness on ourselves brought on by poor diet and exercise habits. I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. We do not fast to earn brownie points with God, but that fact has become our excuse for not fasting, for not attending to self-disipline and self-mortification. We excuse our laziness and gluttony by appealing to our freedom in Christ as forgiven children. We let ourselves off the hook all the while comforting ourselves that we are free not to get caught up in “legalistic” requirements such as fasting. We look at the required fasts in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and rightly criticize the imposition of such rules as contrary to the Gospel freedom we have, but then we again use this an excuse not to fast. We’ll show those legalists, as we continue stuffing our faces and filling our bellies with the food that perishes.
As we now approach the beginning of Lent, it is good to recall that Lent has been, historically, throughout the Church’s history, a time that involves fasting. The German name for Lent used historically in Luthernaism is Fastenzeit, “Fast time.” The spiritual discipline of fasting was always part of historic Lutheranism, but as in so many other areas of our church life, the desire to “fit in” with the rest of American Protestantism, led this practice to fall into disuse among us. Luther assumes that fasting will be part of Lutherans’ practice when they prepare to receive the Supper, for in the Catechism he writes, “Fasting is indeed fine outward bodily preparation…” What he goes on to say about the proper preparation being faith and trust in Christ was never intended to be an excuse not to fast. In The Lutheran Study Bible there is a great article on fasting and I thought you might find it useful as you consider how you will be observing Lent.
Afflicting One’s Soul
The modern Jewish calendar has 28 fasting days, but in the Old Testament, God commanded only one annual fast. In Lv 16:29–31, Moses gave God’s dictum to “afflict [deny] yourselves” on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). In response to the atonement for Israel’s corporate sin, devout Israelites would fast from morning until evening on the tenth day of the seventh month. Before the exile to Babylon, Israelites fasted during times of impending danger, mourning, sickness, threat of war, distress, and sorrow. For example, Hannah did not eat because of the great stress brought about by her barrenness (1Sm 1:7), and David fasted after learning of Abner’s death (2Sm 3:35). Religious leaders also mandated periods of fasting at times of great national crisis (cf Jgs 20:26; 2Ch 20:3; Jer 36:9). These examples show that fasting was an expression of sorrow and, most important, an expression of repentance.
Where faith is strongest, Satan works hardest. While God esteems those who are “humble and contrite in spirit” (Is 66:2), Satan vigorously attacks them with temptations to overindulge. Thankfully, God did not leave His people powerless in their sin. In answer to prayer, God sent Isaiah to call passionately for their repentance and help them understand the true character of fasting as an expression of sorrow over sin and an opportunity to have mercy on the hungry (Is 58:3–8). Unfortunately, instead of heeding God’s call, the people continued in their self-centeredness and thus brought about the Babylonian exile. For God’s people, the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the first temple by Nebuchadnezzar (587 BC) was a turning point in history rivaled only by the Roman destruction of Herod’s temple (AD 70). As a result of the exile, four new fasts were added to the Jewish calendar, each marking key historical dates leading up to and including the exile (Zec 8:18–19). For instance, a fast in the fourth month laments the breach of Jerusalem’s outer wall by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 52:6–7). A fast in the fifth month commemorates the burning of God’s holy temple and other buildings (2Ki 25:8–9), while a fast in the seventh month marks the assassination of Gedaliah, whom the king of Babylon had placed as governor over Judah (Zec 7:5). Finally, a fast during the tenth month is held in memory of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem (2Ki 25:1). These fasts served a holy purpose: they reminded the Israelites of the sorrows brought by neglecting God’s Word. However, over time fasting became another way the Israelites abused God’s Word. In the hope of preventing any further captivity, Jewish scholars pored over the writings of Moses, frantically searching for a reason why God exiled them. They determined to apply the Law more vigorously. What followed was a fundamental shift in their belief system. To this day, many Jewish people still believe that if they keep all the laws perfectly, they will gain salvation. Fasting changed from an expression of repentance to compulsory appeasement of a legalistic code. This deception led many astray to spend eternity apart from the Lord, who desires to save all people (1Tm 2:3–4).
The Appearing of Christ
Before the birth of Jesus, the Pharisees mandated twice-weekly fasting (Lk 18:9–12). The Essenes, a splinter group that may have lived at Qumran, centered much of their lives on fasting. For the unfaithful, fasting was something done to curry God’s favor—a duty, a work, a law. But for the faithful, fasting continued as an expression of repentance and reverence for the Lord, who created them and promised to redeem them. After Jesus’ Baptism, He went into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Mt 4:2). This recalled the devotion of Moses (Ex 24:18), the great prophet Elijah (1Ki 19:8), and the 40 years of wilderness wandering for Israel. During this fast, Satan repeatedly tempted Jesus, but He used God’s precious Word to defend Himself.
Fasting for You
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke against fasting as a means of salvation. Instead, He commended fasting as a private, voluntary act of humility before God (Mt 6:16–18). Take a few moments now to read His words and reflect on your own devotion. If you are like most people, you have thought more about dieting than fasting. It is hard to imagine a daylong fast. No doubt fasting for 40 days like Jesus did after His Baptism is out of the question. Yet our Lord’s words clearly reveal that fasting should be part of a Christian’s life: He said, “When you fast” (Mt 6:16), not “If you fast” (cf Mt 9:14–15). The early Christians fasted (Ac 13:2–3; 14:23). Why shouldn’t a twenty-first-century Christian do likewise? As you fast, let the feelings of hunger you experience remind you to pray. Spend the time you would normally spend eating by reading God’s Word and meditating on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Through His Word, the Lord will bless and nourish you. “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’ ” (Is 58:8–9).
How You Might Fast
Consider fasting for a meal or two before partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Spend your extra time studying God’s Word and singing Communion hymns. Fasting during Lent can be a wonderful way to remember the perfect obedience of Christ and His sacrifice for your salvation. Money not spent on food may be donated for the poor. You might follow this routine for a daylong fast: (1) rise before dawn and eat breakfast; (2) examine yourself as you would prior to partaking of the Lord’s Supper; (3) offer your life to God in penitent prayer; (4) go about your day, breaking your fast at evening. If you are diabetic, fasting could be hazardous. Check with your doctor. Do not consider fasting as a dieting program. If abstaining from food is not possible, consider abstaining from something else. For example, turn off your television and spend time in prayer and study of God’s Word.
Source: The Lutheran Study Bible, page 189.