And when you fast…
Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.
-Luther’s Small Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar
It has been my experience that when the topic of fasting comes up, it is usually commended as a good practice, but as quickly as possible someone adds, “But it’s not necessary.” That’s usually the end of the conversation.
It’s true, fasting isn’t necessary.
But it can be good.
Fasting has been practiced by Christians throughout the ages, yet fasting has become relatively uncommon among Lutherans in the United States. If we do talk or consider fasting, it is typically in this season as we approach Lent. I think it’s time we reclaim this practice.
What are the benefits of fasting?
Fasting is a way for us to remember that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Fasting is not a means by which we are justified or by which we gain a righteous standing before God. But fasting is a way of mortifying (putting to death) the old sinful man with its sinful desires.
Martin Luther explains quite well why fasting can be beneficial for Christians. Below is an excerpt from “Concerning Christian Liberty”
Although, as I have said, inwardly, and according to the spirit, a man is amply enough justified by faith, having all that he requires to have, except that this very faith and abundance ought to increase from day to day, even till the future life; still he remains in this mortal life upon earth, in which it is necessary that he should rule his own body, and have dealings with men.
Here then works begin; here he must not take his ease; here he must give heed to exercise his body by fastings, watchings, labor, and other moderate discipline, so that (1) it may be subdued to the spirit, and (2) obey and conform itself to the inner man and faith, and (3) not rebel against them nor hinder them, as is its nature to do if it is not kept under control. For the inner man, being conformed to God, and created after the image of God through faith, rejoices and delights itself in Christ, in whom such blessings have been conferred on it; and hence has only this task before it, to serve God with joy and in free love without constraint.
In doing this he offends that contrary will in his own flesh, which is striving to serve the world, and to seek its own gratification. This the spirit of faith cannot and will not bear [the flesh]; but applies itself with cheerfulness and zeal to keep it down and restrain it; as Paul says: “I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin” (Romans 7:22-23).
Fasting is a way to remind our flesh, “you are not the boss of me!” When we fast, we deny our body what it craves. Fasting reminds us that sin still clings to us as we await the day when our bodies and souls will be fully free from bondage to sin.
We’re reminded in Philippians that we are not to be ruled by our bellies, rather our citizenship is in heaven. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21)
Denying our body what it craves is part of our Christian calling and it is counter cultural too. In our world today we are barraged with messages that say, “if you feel like doing it, it must be good.” But fasting is a way of remind ourselves that we are not ruled by the flesh, but by the Lord!
Not everyone can fully fast from meals, including people with health issues or who might struggle with eating disorders. If you have any health concerns, please check in with your doctor before you get started. If it’s not wise for you to fast like you see below, there are plenty of alternatives that have the same focus and impact as this spiritual practice.
How to Fast
In the past, Christians learned how to fast from other Christians in their own community. However, since fasting has become a somewhat forgotten practice, you might not have others in your community from whom to learn. So here are some guidelines that may be helpful for you as you consider fasting.
1. Start small
Don’t try fasting for an entire day (or more) if you’ve never fasted before. Start by fasting from one meal. After you have fasted from one meal, maybe progress to two meals. Then try fasting for an entire day.
Lent gives you a good chance to fast. Consider fasting on Wednesdays and/or Fridays. You could use a schedule like the following:
Week 1: Fast from Breakfast
Week 2: Fast from Breakfast and Lunch
Week 3: Fast for the entire day
Week 4: Fast for 36 hours
Week 5: Fast for 2 days
But don’t feel bound to this! If you find that it is not working out well for you to go beyond one or two meals, then fast for one or two meals.
2. Drink a lot of water.
Never fast from drinking water. In fact, you will want to drink more water than normal. This will help you to feel full and help and help you not to have headaches.
3. Feast on the Word
During the time you would have spent eating or preparing food, spend extra time in God’s Word and prayer. Remember, the point of fasting is not merely physical, but physical and spiritual! Fill you mind and heart with the word and spend time praying for others.
4. Consider Fasting with Your Community
Rather than go it alone, consider asking others in your family and/or church family to join you in fasting. You can choose the same Bible readings and pray together. This is, of course, not to be done for show, but it can be a means of encouraging one another.
Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, so consider taking up this spiritual discipline this Lent!
Luther, Martin. “CONCERNING CHRISTIAN LIBERTY.” www.gutenberg.org/files/1911/1911-h/1911-h.htm.