Ought we to fast for lent?

It is clear that a number of good Christian men have advocated the practice of fasting. Luther, Calvin and Wesley all advocated fasting as part of their Christian walk. More recently, John Piper has argued here in favour of making this an ongoing practice. 

However, Zwingli – who was not averse to disagreeing with Luther (cf. the Marburg Colloquy) – opposed fasting during lent, defending his co-workers during the “affair of the sausages”! Similarly, George Wischart rejected the practice of fasting. More recently, Curtis Mitchell has argued here that private fasting may be permissible but is not commanded, required or necessary. Rather, it is a legitimate but unnecessary emotional response to a felt need.

Piper notes that Jesus’ response to a question on fasting in Mt 9:14-17 either refers to an effective revocation or a change in general practice. Either the bridegroom is taken away between the crucifixion and the resurrection or between the ascension and parousia. Piper goes on to make a case for the latter option and Don Carson argues similarly in For the Love of God.

Piper notes in his article that “fasting was by and large associated with mourning in that day. It was an expression of broken-heartedness and desperation, usually over sin”. G. Campbell Morgan, in The Gospel According to Matthew, comments:

A wedding ceremony in an Eastern country lasted for seven days. It was a week of unbounded and unceasing rejoicing, of songs and music and mirth. And Jesus, said, These men are the sons of the bridechamber, and you must not expect them to fast while the Bridegroom is with them, but, “the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast.”

This is Christ’s defence of the right of His people to be merry; and that right to be merry is the fact that He is with them. If that be true, then we have the right to be merry always. What He said about sorrow was fulfilled. He was taken away from them, and they fasted and were sad through those days of darkness; but He came back, and, standing on the slope of Olivet, He said, “Lo, I am with you alway.” Then there is no more room for mourning; no more room for the sad face of agony; but there is room for mirth, room for joy, and room for gladness.

Taking these three things together – (1) fasting is related to mourning, usually over sin; (2) Jesus’ followers will mourn when he has gone away; and, (3) Jesus is with us always – we are rather led to the conclusion that fasting is unnecessary. Indeed, if Christ is forever with us by his Spirit and has dealt with our sin once-and-for-all, what place has fasting in the life of the believer?

Not to be undone so simply, Piper notes the issue and rightly draws our attention to the spanner in the works: (1) the early church fasted after the resurrection; (2) Jesus pictures the second coming as the arrival of the bridegroom in Mt 25:1-13

The second issue is rather easier to explain away. We all know the bridegroom is coming again only, next time, he is coming to judge the world. Though he is always with believers now, he will return bodily. Nevertheless, being with us now and having dealt with our sin, fasting has no place. There is nothing to mourn as the bridegroom is still with us. So, Pipers appeal to Mt 25 doesn’t particularly advance the argument. What does represent a significant issue is this: if Christ is with us and has dealt with our sin, why do the church in Acts continue to fast?

Before going further, we should note there is no NT command to fast. Whenever Jesus discussed fasting, it was almost always in the context of cultural religion. It is hard to press Jesus statement in Mt 6:16-18 as an assumption his followers will/should fast. Rather, he is making a broader point about the outward show of religion and, where such outward forms exist, they should at least be genuine.

Nevertheless, we are still left with the issue of the early church fasting post-resurrection. We should note there are only two examples of this (Acts 13:1-3 and Acts 14:23). Piper seeks to offer 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27 in support of early church fasting but, although the translation may be taken that way in 11:27, the context rather bears out the given translation. So, what are we to say of the two examples in Acts?

It is difficult to press them too far. For one, both times of fasting are linked directly to the sending out, or appointing of, people to particular roles; namely, missionaries and elders. If we are trying to deduce a pattern from these two examples, we are forced to say fasting is reserved for such appointments in the Church. Further, given much of Acts relays particular events that are specific to salvation-history, we may want to be careful in suggesting all things as normative for the church. For example, are we to expect the same outcome as Acts 13 every time we fast? Given that Luke comments neither positively or negatively on these fasts, they are merely stated as having happened, we have no reason to presume this is normative for the church.

It is entirely possible that fasting was an issue of the same order as those in the Jerusalem Council. It is equally possible that this was merely a cultural practice brought over by the Jewish believers. It has surely got to be significant that the issue is only ever mentioned as a point of fact in Acts and is not raised in any of the letters; neither commanded, suggested nor even referred to as an already existing practice. It is perhaps a stretch to press, but nonetheless remarkable, that it is not mentioned in either of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. He neither mentions it in relation to their culture of “spiritual” one-upmanship (a ready tool for such showy, faux-spiritual behaviour) nor as a counter to their gluttony when they meet together (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Similarly, in all Paul’s commendations of churches, fasting is simply not mentioned.

So, what are we to make of fasting? Faced with Jesus words about the presence of the bridegroom in Mt 9, and given his comment that he is with believers always, we have positive reasons to reject fasting and mourning. In the face of any New Testament command to do so, and in the absence of any reason to presume the two instances in Acts are normative for the church, it seems legitimate to view fasting as obsolete.

Does that mean fasting is wrong? Not at all. Jesus himself fasted and John, whom Jesus commended, did so too. That the early church did so as well tells us, if nothing else, it is a legitimate practice. If an individual finds it somehow personally beneficial, then they are entitled to fast if they wish. Nevertheless, what has the believer to mourn if the bridegroom is forever with them and their sin has been dealt with once-and-for-all? If that is the state of the believer, then it seems we have little to fast.