exegesis · Lent · scripture · theology · theology thursday

Lent, Fasting, and Scripture

My History with Lent

If you search my blog archives, you will find exactly four blog post regarding Lent. These represent, fairly well, my “spiritual journey” over the past few years. Had I been praying for discernment as early as 2011, I would have seen the writing on the wall at our then-loved megachurch, because many of my friends were practicing Lent. Instead, I wrestled with the idea. I did not realize then that practicing Lent was a gateway to widespread mystical practices that have since infiltrated the evangelical church as a whole.

Three years later, I was intrigued by the then popular idea of adding something to your life during Lent, instead of taking something away (aka “fasting”). I attempted to add praying daily for my husband, and because my follow through with an active toddler wasn’t superb, I simply felt guilty that I wasn’t wholly committed to Lent and succeeding at it 100%. I had no idea that neonomianism existed, or that I was caught up in that deadly works-based trap.

Last year I found myself gravitating toward Reformed Theology blogs, authors, and churches. Resting in a more thorough understanding of grace based salvation, Lent barely even crossed my radar (except, of course, the megachurch we attended still mentioned it in various ways). This year I have been relieved that no one from church has brought it up, and the only mentions of it I’ve seen online are from a food-based support group I am a part of…


But What is Fasting?

But I have always been curious why people think “fasting” can have anything to do with something other than food. Biblically, fasting always has to do with food, and usually it is a response to tragedy.

Fasting is not designed to be something to brag about. Fasting is not a magical method to “hear from God” more clearly. Fasting is not a method of punishing oneself disguised as some sort of twisted worship.

Fasting, biblically, is foregoing food, to live on the Word of God alone. Fasting is a reminder that our very existence is dependent upon God, and not ourselves. And, fasting is always giving up food completely; it is not giving up certain types of food or something else.

Fasting is giving up all food for a specific period of time.

Old Testament Examples

The first instance of fasting we see in Scripture is King David in II Samuel 12. The baby born to him and Bathsheba as the result of their illicit sexual activity is dying, and, eventually dies. Once the baby dies, King David wants food brought to him, and his servants don’t understand why. King David says, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live'” (II Samuel 12:22 NASB).

In response to tragedy, and accompanying desperate prayer, King David fasted.

Another instance of fasting we see in Scripture is King Jehoshaphat in II Chronicles 20. The armies of Moab, Ammon, and the Meunites have come to attack Jehoshaphat and his people. Everyone is afraid. The King’s response? “Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (II Chronicles 20:3). Then he prayed before the assembly, reminding God of His promises to His people, and the people worshiped. They were, of course, victorious.

In response to a fearful and potentially tragic situation, and accompanying desperate prayer, King Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah fasted.

Ezra was going to lead the Israelites out of exile and back to Jerusalem. “Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahave, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, ‘The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him. So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty” (Ezra 8:21-23).

In order to honor God before non-believers, to request His help, and accompanying prayer, Ezra and the Israelites fasted.

I’m sure we all know the story of Esther. She needed to appear before the king – her husband – without permission, which could end up being the death of her. She asked the Jewish people to fast and pray for three days: “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for thee days, night or day. I and my maidens will also fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

For protection, and to save an entire nation, not eating or drinking for three days, Esther and the Jews pleaded with God for His help.

Perhaps the most interesting treatise on fasting in all of Scripture is found in Isaiah 58. You should really read the whole passage, but essentially God is very unhappy with what His people have turned fasting into. They claim they are fasting in order to seek God’s attention, but He says they are doing it entirely incorrectly; they are fasting for selfish needs or to glorify themselves. There is no repentance, no desire to help the less fortunate, no desire to stop evil, no action of loving others.

To me, this sounds a lot like modern day Lenten fasting. “I am giving up electronics for Lent.” “I am giving up fatty foods for Lent.” “I am giving up sugar for Lent.”

How does this benefit anyone but the person doing the “fasting”?

But Wait! Jesus Said…

Jesus addressed this as well, lest you think it’s simply an Old Testament issue. His most famous statement on fasting goes, surprise, hand in hand, with prayer. Right after teaching the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says this: “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

I have heard many a sermon on this passage as a command for Christians to fast. Perhaps. But I believe Jesus is addressing the hypocrisy issue just as much as anything else. How do you know someone has given up something for Lent? Don’t worry; they’ll tell you. Yet that is in direct contrast to what Jesus says.

The only other time fasting is mentioned in the New Testament, the Pharisees are all upset that the disciples aren’t fasting. Jesus says that of course they aren’t – He is with them. Why would they fast when He is with them? (see Luke 5). Do we need to fast today? Don’t we have Jesus with us today? He promised He would never leave us, and He sent us the Holy Spirit to indwell us.

The Conclusion

If the disciples didn’t need to fast, because Jesus was with them…

If we have Jesus with us, and the Holy Spirit…

If Lent wasn’t even a thing during Jesus’ life, or for around 300 years afterwards

I’m not saying you cannot fast.

I am saying Lent is not of Scripture.

Here’s what I want you to consider, dear sister. Fasting is not a magical tool. Fasting always involves giving up all food for a specific period of time, not just some food. Fasting is always accompanied by intense prayer. Fasting is usually in response to a tragedy, a fear, or an incredible need. It is not a form of worship or glorification.

Do not fall prey to the idea that you have to do something in order to earn favor with Christ. That is a lie. He is not asking you to give up something in order to somehow better celebrate His death, burial, and resurrection. Don’t fall for it.

Accept His grace, love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

That will change the next forty-some days. Trust me.


3 thoughts on “Lent, Fasting, and Scripture

  1. “I did not realize then that practicing Lent was a gateway to widespread mystical practices that have since infiltrated the evangelical church as a whole.”

    That’s it in a nutshell. Great post!


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