Q: I know that fasting often was recommended years ago as a reminder of repentance. Should we be encouraging its use more today?”
A: Today when we hear of fasting we tend to connect it with a form of political protest, or else a remnant of traditional Roman Catholicism, The hypocrisy associated with the Mardi Gras (“fat Tuesday”) festival, which has advocated gorging before the customary “give-up-for-Lent,” has also made a mockery out of the proper and ancient practice of denying oneself food to help focus on sorrow over sin and leading a sober and godly life.
Jesus spoke of fasting as a common practice in his day, and he did not condemn its usage (Matt. 6:16-18). He himself fasted, for example, in his being tempted in the wilderness. But his disciples did not; nor did he command that it be done. Read Jesus’ reply in Luke 5:33-39 as to why his disciples did not follow the custom of fasting. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day regarded fasting as a meritorious work (Luke 18:12), not realizing that in the sight of God a person is “justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law” (Gal. 2:16).
Fasting had been done on a voluntary basis in the early church, but when monasticism came along it enforced it as a mandatory practice and led people to think of it as a self-righteous deed. It is for this reason that the Lutheran Church has–for the most part–shied away from urging fasting. (On its dangers see the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XV, par. 22ff.)
But if fasting is not perceived by an individual in a work-righteous way, and if it is found to be personally beneficial for recalling the need for daily repentance and prayer, then we should not be afraid to recommend heartily its usage. Realizing repentance isn’t a common theme in today’s society, might it be advisable for us to remember how Luther put it in connection with going to the Lord’s Supper?—“Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’ . . . ”