Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers understand what sin is, how serious sin is, and how great the grace of God, who offers redemption to sinners from sin and new life in Christ.
- David Dunham opened our series on sin with a look at sin and biochecmical brokenness.
- Today Zach writes on overcoming a sinful theology of Lent and Fasting.
It is highly likely that someone reading this article is currently in the middle of observing Lent. Lent is the forty-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, in which Christians choose to give up something in solemn recognition of the Lord. Before the article title is taken out of context, let me explain what I mean. To be clear, I am not against the practice of Lent; I am against how it (and fasting in general) is frequently used and treated.
One of the most overlooked and misunderstood components of the Christian faith is the practice of fasting. Scripture speaks a great deal about fasting, and these passages should be carefully studied and applied. If done apart from God’s explicit commands in Scripture, one’s approach to fasting will become not only incorrect, but sinful. If the Church is to have a right theology of fasting, it will help believers avoid these four sinful danger zones.
Neglecting fasting is where most Christians land on the subject. Instead of reading Matthew 6:16 as it is, “And when you fast” many Christians read this passage as, “And if you decide to fast”. Some don’t like to believe that Scripture commands God’s people to fast, but I heartily disagree. Not only does Jesus use “when” in the Matthew 6 passage, but there are other places that provide evidence that fasting is a viable and important part of our Christian life.
In Matthew 9:14-15 there’s a remarkable interaction between John’s disciples and Jesus. These men ask Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds in typical fashion: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Jesus is not only alluding to His death, resurrection, and ascension, but making an important statement about fasting. When we finally arrive in the presence of the Lord and are united with Him not only in spirit, but also in body, we will no longer “wait with eager longing” (Rom. 8:19), for we will be with Him, and the feast will never end. What a pleasant Day that will be, but until then, we wait with eager longing. Charles Spurgeon elaborates: “Our Lord is our joy: his presence makes our banquet; his absence is our fast, black and bitter.” Fasting is a necessary opportunity for God’s people to deepen their dependence on Christ, remember His sacrifice, and to long for His unending Feast. Neglecting these reminders is not helpful.
Some say fasting is only an important practice while suffering or amidst trials. This view, however, reveals a shallow understanding of fasting. Believers shouldn’t use fasting and Lent as our “Get Out of Jail Free” card, but as an intimate way to continually recognize dependence on the Father and His good provision in all of life. Even if one faithfully observes Lent six weeks out of the year, what happens in the other forty-six weeks? Do these six weeks store enough fuel for the rest of the year to remind you to depend on the Great Provider? Certainly not.
We know that we must not neglect fasting altogether, but it only adds to the problem if our practice of fasting becomes legalistic in nature. Jesus pulls no punches throughout His ministry when it comes to legalism. The Pharisees, in their zealous passion for the upkeep of the law and its commandments, were quick to condemn those who did not follow every jot and tittle of the law’s explicit directions. They didn’t merely criticize law-breakers, but labored to ostracize, exile, punish, and even kill such people.
Fasting is like any other sacramental or ceremonial practice, in that it is not a path through which one gets to right standing with God and attains salvation. No work earns salvation. The problem with many Catholics’ approach to Lent, for example, is making Lent a required practice to attain God’s blessing. This idea, of course, gets squashed by texts like Romans 5:17, which clearly teach that righteousness is a “free gift” imputed to sinners by grace through faith in Christ. God’s blessing is freely bestowed, not earned by any man’s performances or practices. Therefore, fasting should be born out of heart conviction, not checking a list or judging others who don’t participate.
I once knew a girl who chose to leave Facebook for good. The problem wasn’t her leaving, but rather her making a big deal about leaving to everyone else. Instead of simply deactivating her Facebook account, she made a big deal about leaving, making people feel like they weren’t as mature as her. Piggybacking off of legalism, if we are not careful, our appearance can fuel our practice of fasting, whether positive or negative, which ruins the whole point of fasting.
In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that in such practices, looking gloomy and pious are both equally harmful. The most interesting verse is verse 17, where Jesus uses the imagery of washing one’s face as how we should fast. It is certainly ironic that many put crosses on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, yet Jesus seems to say the opposite. Christians should fast in a private manner, reflecting Daniel’s prayers in Daniel 6:10. What we give up for Lent is, honestly, no one else’s business, because Lent or fasting is about you and God. Don’t try to attract pity by complaining about being hungry, and don’t make others feel less connected to God because they aren’t fasting like you. Making fasting your megaphone is spiritually poisonous.
Another great danger in fasting is practicing Matthew 6:16-17 precisely so that Matthew 6:18 will come true. Expecting something positive happening as a result of your fasting or observance of Lent is treating God like a vending machine instead of your Father. With God, we don’t put in the right change and then expectantly select a treat that falls in our lap. Believers serve God, communicate with God, and worship God because God is our Father, and behold, He is good. We are, shockingly to some, not the center of this universe. God Almighty is “the point.” Even in fasting, He alone must be the driving force, not our tangible benefits. In giving up our need for reward, we ironically earn the greatest gift of all: God Himself. And that is a gift of far greater value than we can even comprehend.
Christians must fast, but they must do it God’s way. Lent must not be reserved for a ritualistic six-week period where God’s people abstain from something they’ll likely indulge in the rest of the year (Fat Tuesday is counterproductive, by the way). A life of fasting that is regular, private, and focused on Christ will stir God’s people to continually be reminded of the Feast that awaits them, along with the opportunity to see God providing for them today, and to commune with their Heavenly Father in an intimate and personal way.
This Lent, or in your next fast, it doesn’t matter if you’re giving up social media, red meat, alcohol, or television (remember, legalism is destructive). It doesn’t matter what you’ll “get out of it.” What matters is the Lord, and here’s a great way to show Him how worthy He is—do all you do on Lent or any other day to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).