On Lent and Fasting

Lent is universally observed in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and the so-called high church Protestant traditions. In recent years, many low church Protestants and evangelicals have begun to appreciate the season as well.

mourningI’ve heard people say that Lent is unbiblical because it is not mentioned in the Bible. The Apostle Paul tells us not to let anyone judge us by what we eat or drink or by the religious festivals and holidays that we keep (Col 2:16). Observing Lent is not a matter of right or wrong. However, Lenten practices go back to the earliest days of the Church, and many Christians throughout the ages have found them to be beneficial.

Lent is part of the annual church calendar which does have biblical roots. An annual cycle of religious feasts was established in the Old Testament. Jesus observed those feasts, and the main events of the gospel are embedded in them. Jesus died at feast of Passover; he rose from the dead on the feast of Firstfruits; and he sent his Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost. The church liturgical calendar is partly a Christian adaptation of the Jewish cycle of feasts.

The church calendar can keep us grounded in the facts of the gospel. The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus took place in history; they are objective truths. Our understanding of God and relationship with him are subjective experiences. Responding to the liturgical calendar in prayer and worship can be an excellent way to connect our subjective experiences of faith to the objective truths of the gospel. It helps us to align our story with the Bible’s story. And it’s a practical way to be united with Christ in his baptism and ministry, and in his death and resurrection. In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul wrote: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Lent is a time when we can walk alongside Jesus and witness his suffering, experiencing the events that led to his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. It is a somber time, a season of quiet reflection, repentance and self denial. Observing Lent can make the celebration of Easter all the more meaningful and joyful.

Christians have traditionally observed Lent by fasting and abstaining from things that give them pleasure. Practicing self-denial can be helpful, but it also may be unhealthy. Here are three things to keep in mind about fasting and related practices.

1. Healthy fasting is not an attempt to get something from God. It is not a tool to manipulate God (which won’t work anyway). And it is certainly not a method for earning God’s favor. If you are a child of God, then you already have God’s favor; he cannot love you any more than he already does. Fasting is not a means of earning grace. Spiritual disciplines should be understood as a means for drawing near to Christ and opening ourselves to receive the grace that he has already bestowed.

2. Healthy fasting is not primarily about me. Self-denial may lead a person to become self-absorbed. Jesus warns against this (Mt 6:16-18). In the Old Testament, righteous fasting is linked to concern and compassion for those who are less fortunate. Isaiah 58:6-7 says: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” By fasting, we can suffer with those who suffer and mourn with those who mourn. By fasting, we can live in solidarity with Jesus who went to the cross to bear sorrow and pain for the whole world.

3. Healthy fasting does not pit one part of a person against another, but brings the parts together into alignment. In a well integrated person, the mind, heart and body should be in sync. Sin causes them to become disconnected, and spiritual disciplines should help them to reconnect.

One of the biggest news stories earlier this month was the search for former Los Angeles police officer Chris Dorner who went on a shooting spree and then fled to the San Bernadino Mountains. While Dorner was in a standoff with police, his mother was reportedly spotted in a Mexican restaurant drinking wine and eating chips while watching the media coverage of her son on TV. I don’t know anything about Mrs. Dorner’s relationship with her son. But by any reasonable standard, this behavior is odd. When someone you love is in a crisis, a normal bodily response would be fasting, not feasting.

I once heard of a church that held a service on Good Friday. The pastor selected joyful hymns and delivered a happy message to “celebrate” Jesus’ victory at the cross. I understand his point, but a joyful Good Friday service is rather awkward. (I wonder how this pastor would officiate at a funeral for one of his parishioners.) There is a proper time to laugh and a proper time to weep (Ecc 3:4). Celebrating, lauging or joking at inappropriate times are symptoms of a human being in denial, one who is disconnected from his surroundings, from other people, and from himself.

In an excellent book titled Fasting: The Ancient Practices, author Scot McKnight argues that unhealthy fasting grows out of unbiblical views about the body. Many Christians have a Gnostic-like tendency to separate body from spirit. They tend think of the spiritual realm as being superior and holy, and the physical realm as being inferior or corrupt. With such a view, fasting can become an unhealthy battle to subdue the flesh by the power of the will. The behavior of some ascetic saints who practiced extreme forms of self-deprivation (e.g. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena) may be related to anorexia nervosa and distorted body image. Spirit-body dualism is a key feature of Greek philosophy, but it is not consistent with the Hebrew understanding of human beings in the Old Testament. Nor is it consistent with the gospel. The Incarnation of the Son of God was meant to redeem our bodies, not to defeat them.

Biblical fasting, argues McKnight, allows the body to express the discomfort of the spirit: “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous, sacred moment in life.” A healthy person will naturally want to fast in times of crisis or in times of mourning, when loved ones are in danger or experiencing tragedy. As we recall the suffering of Jesus during the season of Lent, the normal response of an empathetic Christian is not to indulge in physical pleasures but to put them aside for a time with reverence and respect.

Fasting may have short-term and long-term benefits. Some Christians who fast will tell you that it helps them to pray. It may bring clarity and discernment. It may help to diminish temptations in other areas (e.g. sexual behavior). And it may help you to shed some extra pounds around your midsection. Fasting and other acts of self-denial may bring some positive results in your life. But those are not the primary motivations for fasting during the Lent. The best reason to fast is to experience in your body a palpable solidarity with Jesus Christ who bore in his body the sin, sorrow and suffering of the world.


  1. Point #2 is excellent and matches what the Spirit has been leading me to do this Lent. I love the Isaiah 58:6-7 reference. I am learning that there is much to learn about the fulfilling of the Prophets work accomplished on the cross. Not only did the cross fulfill the Law, but also the Prophets. I’m pondering that and searching for Scripture to explain that part of the work on the cross.

    This Lent I’m moved as never before, not to give up something, but to deny my self and listen, speak, and ponder more deeply. This does in fact require me to give up my own pride, woundedness and sense of failure. I am finding this Lent that God has indeed given me a ministry, and I seek to hear His voice leading me to discover that ministry and where it may lead.

  2. Joe Schafer

    Thanks, Brian.

    When I think of Point #2, I’m reminded of the song “Man in Black” by Johnny Cash. He was a man who closely identified with the poor, the marginalized, and those who were in prison. His custom of wearing black was a spiritual practice.

  3. Hi Joe, thanks for your article. My “problem” with fasting is that a primary motivation may be vanity, i.e. I do not want to nor like to gain weight. But a sense of hunger, even with such a poor motivation, does help me to keep my heart in Christ, his Spirit, his Word.

    Maybe this is a typo. You wrote in your article: “The Incarnation of the Son of God was not meant to redeem our bodies, not to defeat them.”

    Did you mean this instead? “The Incarnation of the Son of God was meant to redeem our bodies, not to defeat them.”

  4. But seriously Joe, you echo (once again) what the Holy Spirit has been teaching me… a ministry of listening and blogging in order to remember and call back to honesty and reality.

    If there is anything we “must” do, it is to remember the pain of those who went before us.

  5. Mary Karcher
    Mary Karcher

    Hello Joe, and thank you for the article!

    One thing I wanted to mention that you touch on in point two, but don’t foreground, is that “fasting” during the Lenten season doesn’t necessarily have to be food related. I appreciate that yes, the definition of “fasting” does center around abstaining from food and/or drink; however, I think that the key to fasting during Lent is to deny oneself something of substance as a prayer offering to remember Christ and to share in his sufferings and sacrifice in some way (as you mentioned). That “something” doesn’t only have to be food/drink based. The verse you cited in Isaiah said “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” These do not necessarily involve physical food or drink.

    My point is not to criticize, but to open up the possibility for those that may be unfamiliar with Lent and who may not be able to deny themselves food/drink for whatever reason, that abstaining from or “fasting” a favorite TV show, for example, or an hour a day spent on Facebook (or whatever), if done with the right heart and spirit, can also be pleasing to God and can help us to remember Christ’s sacrifice during this season.

    I’m interested about the book you referenced by McKnight; does he refer to fasting only as based on food and drink, or does he see the possibility of “fasting” or “abstaining” in other areas as well?

    • Hi Mary and welcome to our virtual, dysfunctional yet friendly community!

      (And yes, this is my beautiful, intelligent, faithful, incredible wife who has put up with hereticman by the grace of God for over 18 years :)

    • Welcome Mary, nice to see you writing here! I agree, fasting must not necessarily be food related, though that’s the original meaning. In the Protestant Church in Germany I often heared the same advice as you are giving, subsumed under “fasting”. It’s important to catch the gist of such traditions, we must not always follow them literally. I think Lent could be also an opportunity to abandon some bad habit, and this might even have the positive effect that we completely break with that bad habit. It has been said that to learn a good habit or unlearn a bad habit, it takes 30 days. So the season of Lent would be more than sufficient to do that.

  6. Joe Schafer

    Mary, thanks for asking about this issue. In Scot McKnight’s book, he makes a distinction between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is a temporary stop in consuming food (and possibly drink). When you see fasting occurring in the Bible (OT and NT) that’s what the term actually means. Refraining from certain foods — for example, when Daniel ate only vegetables — or from alcohol or from hanging out with friends or from sexual relations or from other pleasurable activities — is called abstinence. McKnight’s book focuses on fasting, because that is what we see most often in the Bible, but similar ideas and guidelines would apply to abstinence and any other spiritual practice involving self-denial.

    I think that the quote from Isaiah suggests that God is not impressed by fasting or abstinence if it is strictly an exercise in self-improvement. Rather, these practices are supposed to help us to be more in tune with others, especially those less fortunate, and with the God who cares for them. During Lent, Christians have traditionally linked fasting and abstinence with almsgiving and other acts of charity. For example, instead of buying a meal for yourself, you could take the money that you would have spent and use it to by a meal for someone else.

    Abstaining from Facebook, a favorite TV show, etc. can be a good idea. What would make it even better is to recycle that time in a constructive way to express care and love toward God and toward others. That, I think, is the essence of Isaiah 58:6-7.

    But one word of caution is in order. During Lent, it is never, ever advisable to abstain from UBFriends.