Lent is upon us… well, it’s upon those who observe lent.
The word Lent originally meant ‘lengthen’, as in the daylight hours of Spring, but in the more traditional Christian world, it has come to signify the 40 days of preparation for Easter. The main idea is that Christians should examine their lives, repent of sin, and attempt to present themselves as pleasing to God. One of the main ways they try to achieve this is by fasting.
In Old Testament times good Israelites fasted for several different reasons, but the most common reason was to demonstrate their grief and anguish of heart. When someone died, the family would fast as a way of evidencing their grief. When the nation disobeyed God and the people then realised their error they would fast to demonstrate their repentance. However, the religious leaders gradually replaced this fasting-from-the-heart with an ostentatious style of fasting designed to demonstrate their personal piety. So, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day would fast on one or two days a week to show others just how ‘holy’ they were, and they made sure everyone knew that they were fasting. Jesus addressed this religious pride and hypocrisy when He said, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16–18).
When today’s Christians wish to justify why they fast, say for Lent, they often quote this passage because Jesus said “When you fast” and not “if you fast” and was thus endorsing the practice for His followers… so they say. However his teaching was part of the well-known Sermon on the Mount, and although His disciples were present Jesus was addressing a large crowd of traditional Jewish folk (Matthew 7:29). They understood the why and how of fasting.
To take Jesus’ acknowledgement of the practice of fasting in this passage as an endoresemnt for the ongoing practice of fasting is really biting off more than we should be chewing.
Matthew 9:14-17 records how on another occasion Jesus addressed the issue of fasting: ‘Then the disciples of John came to him [Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “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. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”’ Once again this is commonly used to support the idea that today’s believers should fast because did not Jesus, the groom, leave us to go back to heaven? But do we not believe then that Jesus is with us now in spirit? I would have thought that the more obvious way of understanding this passage was to take the comparison between John the Baptist’s Old Testament followers and Jesus’ disciples as a rejection, and not an endorsement, of Christian fasting.
I have sometimes fasted from all foods for up to a week, but in my later years have come to realise that fasting, other than for health reasons, is problematic on a number of grounds:
- First is the lack of any reasonable biblical endorsement, let alone encouragement.
- Second, are the dubious motivations and practices that are so common when it comes to fasting. If we, as Christians, do decide to fast then the only legitimate spiritual motivation I can see is the desire to use abstinence as a way of drawing closer to Jesus. This means that we would need to use the mechanism of fasting in a conscious way to deal with sin issues, spend more time in prayer, and so on. To sit at a dinner table and refuse to eat by saying “Sorry, but I am fasting” doesn’t create the time or focus for drawing closer to God and is, in essence, pharisaic.
- To token-fast by missing one meal a day and by eating before 6 am and again after 6 pm is, in my opinion, religious superficiality. To refrain from consuming food and beverages and then walking around looking and sounding grumpy and longing for a headache tablet is, again in my opinion, just puerile.
The only way I can conceive of a valid fast, for Lent or at any other time, is to use the time when one would normally eat to pray and meditate and to respond to the pangs and aches associated with short-term fasting by drawing aside to read the scriptures and pray. Why else would we want to fast?
So perhaps we need less fasting and more loosing to break away from religious attitudes and thoughtless practices. What do you say? I would love to read your comments.