What about fasting during Lent?

It’s hard to avoid the subject of fasting when Lent comes around every year. Should we avoid eating meat on Fridays? First a little history, then a few principles, then you can decide for yourself.

The habit of fasting before Easter developed gradually—starting already within the first one hundred years of Christianity—and with lots of diversity in practice. Today, the Roman Catholic church requires either total fasting or only avoiding certain foods as a form of penance. They teach that all people are obliged by God to perform works of penance to pay for their sins. Here are the current rules for United States Catholics:

  • every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year—unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance
  • every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays of Lent—no substitutions allowed
  • every person between the ages of 18 and 59 must abstain from all foods on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday

The Lutheran church does not impose such rules on Christians, but leaves the decision up to each individual. Our Augsburg Confession says, “Fasting in itself is not rejected, but what is rejected is making a necessary service of fasts on prescribed days and with specified foods, for this confuses consciences. . . . Such outward forms of service do not make us righteous before God . . . therefore it is not a sin to omit them.”

So should you fast, or skip it?

While not necessary for forgiveness of sins, fasting can do good things for you. In the Small Catechism, Luther says, “Fasting and bodily preparation are indeed fine outward training.” Fasting can remind us of our dependence on God rather than on the resources of this world. Fasting can be a means of saving resources so they can be given to the poor. Fasting is a means of self-discipline in a world where self-denial is almost seen as a crime against humanity.

For the Christian, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin. It is an avoidance of anything that could interfere with, distract from, or disturb the preparation for the new Christian life with the risen Christ. The temporary interruption of some selfish habit for a limited period of time, with the intention of resuming the old habit after Easter, does not accomplish the Christian’s goal. Lenten observances should aim at permanent improvement of the Christian life.

Fasting or some other Lenten observance is up to you. Those observances do not forgive our sins, but they may help us center our thoughts on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which does forgive our sins. But don’t stop with only thinking about Christ, follow him!