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When You Fast…

February 5th, 2013
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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.

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Categories: Christian Life
  1. February 11th, 2010 at 06:52 | #1

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post on Lent and fasting and a timely reminder for me personally. Thank you.

  2. Mark Schroeder
    February 11th, 2010 at 07:57 | #2

    This is a good and godly reminder. But remember the saying: “Fasting is a great idea especially on a full stomach” (!)

  3. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    February 11th, 2010 at 09:13 | #3

    I see no reason to mistake the predictable physical effects of early stage glucose denial for a spiritual phenomenon.

    I’m a veteran of everything from fasting before midnight before Communion to Yom Kippur. I suggest the “when” is not by way of command or prescription, but that while the practice is not wrong per se nor forbidden, when you do it don’t make a big deal about it including to yourself.

    Best directions ever on the fast God wants — Isaiah 58.

    • February 11th, 2010 at 09:36 | #4

      Terry, I used to be among the “say nice things about fasting, but only to a point, then spend most of my time talking about how fasting is done wrong, for the wrong reasons” then I kind of just woke up one day to the reality that our Lord Christ simply assumes that His disciples fast just as much as He assumes they pray. Then I got over my fasting-phobia.

      Fast when and how you wish, and no, you never make a “big deal” of it…just do it.

      But we Lutherans have become masters of making excuses for why we don’t do something, and finding justification [pun intended] for neglecting that “fine outward bodily preparation” which God provides through fasting.

  4. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    February 11th, 2010 at 12:14 | #5

    I completely agree that we have become masters at why we don’t do things, so afraid of confusing sanctification and justification that we ignore sanctification and good works altogether.

    Re fasting though, I don’t see “when you fast” as an assumption that all Christians will fast any more than I see “when you pray” as an assumption that Christians shall only pray the Our Father.

    • February 11th, 2010 at 12:32 | #6

      I would simply say that the Our Father is not optional for Christians to use. Jesus said, flat out, “when you pray, say….” not, “When you pray, here is a suggestion of how you can pray” or “When you pray, here’s a model to consider.” Now, do we pray *only* the Our Father? No, of course not, but we do pray the Our Father. Is fasting the only kind of spiritual discipline and spiritual exercise in which we engage? I trust not, but I no longer view fasting as being optional for the Christian life, anymore than I view praying as optional.

  5. Randy Keyes
    February 12th, 2010 at 10:11 | #7

    Does anyone know of a good guide to fasting for those of us who have glucose issues?

    Thank you,


  6. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    February 12th, 2010 at 22:29 | #8

    Fasting lowers blood sugar and blood pressure, and those with issues in these areas should consult a physician, not a pastor, about it. Seriously.

  7. February 13th, 2010 at 01:32 | #9

    I think fasting and prayer are inevitable in Christian life. They will happen.

    If you do not fast and pray, God will make you, crisis is just around the corner.


  8. Lindsey
    February 19th, 2010 at 16:37 | #10

    I’ve only fasted once. It was for 30 Hour Famine: a Christian organization where you can raise money by pledging to people that you will fast for 30 hours if they raise money for starving people. The entire incident was bathed in prayer and believe it or not, God helped me. Normally when I don’t eat, I get really crabby, my stomach feels raw, and I just feel sick. But none of that happened. What God calls a person to do, He also equips them. God will strengthen us when we fast for Him.

    Thank you for your post, Paul. It inspires me to fast this Lenten season because I know God will help me get through it, just as he did for 30 Hour Famine.

  9. Michael L. Anderson
    February 20th, 2012 at 13:40 | #11

    It seems to me that the “When you pray” is no imperative or command, but a loving, instructional advisory, one directed to a pointed request of His oft-times bumbling, bewildered, and hurting disciples. “When you pray” is also prophetic. The Church has, does and will say such, when it prays, on those occasions when we saints gather in His Name, to commune with Him. Although the WELS has chosen to divorce the Prayer from the Verba, in ITS so-called “Common Service” ordo, the historical significance and intimacy of the traditional placement of the Lord’s little intercession, with respect to the Sacrament cannot be denied … in fact, every petition of it is answered forthrightly and speedily, with the Meal.

    “When you fast,” similarly, is an observation of a real employed behavior, one actually engaged in, a fine outward training, as the saying goes. Prayer disciples the mind (and body); the fast does the same, with different emphasis. Let us then follow the Lord, who did both, in the wildernesses He encountered. Why should the unworthy servant, be above the Master, in such doings? Did not Jesus do all, in accordance with the Father’s will? Are we not little Christs, in name?

    A most timely, laudable and practical piece of writing, Rev. McCain. Kudos, sir.

    • February 20th, 2012 at 16:08 | #12

      Well, it is decidedly both and. Notice our Lord’s, when you pray, say….

      He does not assume we won’t pray, but assumes we will, just as he said … *when* not *if* your fast. Lutherans seems to have read *if* where the Lord says *when.*

      Thanks for your kind words about the article, but keep in mind I drew it out of The Lutheran Study Bible.

  10. James Kellerman
    February 20th, 2012 at 22:00 | #13

    I remember the first time I “fasted”; I was so busy running around doing a number of errands that I had no time to eat lunch. Being a student, I also had no money to go and buy a meal to replace the lunch that I had skipped. Since I have always been a rather skinny guy with a high metabolism, I had never had an occasion to skip a meal before. I remember quite well that I was grouchy and miserable. No, I was downright angry. How in the world could such a tragedy befall a guy like me?

    Sometime after that I was encouraged to fast and observed my first fast on Good Friday by going all day without food (but drinking water and coffee). Eventually I would adopt the habit of observing the traditional Western model of fasting during Lent. But I also noticed something: as I fasted, I discovered that my body was capable of going without food for a longer period than I had thought. I think I would have been in torment at the thought of the 12-hour fast my annual physical requires. But now? Piece of cake.

    It isn’t for the physical benefits that one fasts. But I can say that it has helped me understand how I am a body-soul unity. I like to pamper my body and say it doesn’t matter, since I am so spiritually minded. But fasting teaches me to take both body and soul seriously and to see them as intertwined.

    • February 21st, 2012 at 08:32 | #14

      Thanks, James, for sharing your experience. God bless your Lent.

  11. Rev. Matthew Lorfeld
    February 5th, 2013 at 08:54 | #15

    Another way to fast that I find helpful is simply a simplification and reduction in the amount of food eaten at each meal. I eat out a lot and like my double portions, so this tends to hit home. For example:
    A bowl of cereal, milk, and fruit for breakfast.
    A simple cold cut sandwich for lunch with another piece of fruit
    For dinner a normal meal with the family… Skipping dessert

    For me this is essentially a half meal for the first two meals. The point of this is no eating out and very simple meals for breakfast and lunch, which save money and time to be given to those in need and spent in prayer.

  12. Joseph G. Eggleston
    February 5th, 2013 at 08:59 | #16

    The thing is, there are actually many health benefits to abstaining from food for varying periods of time. It’s just that most modern people are too horrified by the barbarism of not quenching the body’s every desire for additional calories every few hours to ever consider that it might be good for them to stop eating.

    Now, we’re talking about the spiritual discipline of fasting, not dieting for weight loss, but the two are related. The chronic obesity amongst LCMS clergy is a clear sign that most of us have our priorities out of whack. A few less calories will do the body (and the soul) good.

    • February 5th, 2013 at 09:19 | #17

      Bingo. The sin of gluttony is one we do not like to talk about, or hear about, but it is directly responsible for most American’s health problems. We just eat too much and too much processed, fatty, sugary, salty foods.

  13. Dale James Nelson
    February 8th, 2013 at 14:02 | #18


    Thank you for these timely thoughts.

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