Two Types of Good Fasting

Lent 1 Sunday

Matthew 4:1-2

“Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tested by the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”

This gospel is read today at the beginning of the fasting season of Lent in order to present Christ’s example to the Christians and to keep the fast which is nothing but monkey business. First, no one can keep such an example and fast for forty days and nights without food, as Christ did. Christ, rather, followed the example set by Moses who also fasted for forty days and nights when he received the law on Mt. Sinai. This is also why Christ wanted to fast when he was to bring and proclaim to us the new law. Second, our fasting is a perverted thing and was established by men. For although Christ fasted for forty days, there is no word by which he told us to do likewise and fast. He certainly did many things he does not want us to do. Rather, we should look to what he told us to do and to leave undone, so that we have his word. But the worst thing is that we received and practiced our fasting as a good work–not to discipline the flesh, but as a merit before God to purge sin and to obtain grace. This is what gave our fasting such blasphemous and shameful stench before God that no boozing or gorging, no gluttony or drunkenness could have been so evil and stinking. It would have been better to be drunk by day and night than to observe fasting as a meritorious work. Moreover, even if all things had been good and right and such fasting had been practiced only to discipline the flesh, it would still have been lost and in vain because it was not left free, to be taken up by each willingly, but was coerced by the command of men. I will remain silent about the great damage such fasting inflicted on pregnant women and their offspring as well as on sick and infirm people. Instead of a holy fast, such fasting may better be called a devilish fast. This is why we want to look at the gospel carefully as it teaches us to fast rightly based on Christ’s example. Scripture presents us with two types of good fasting. First, there is the fast people take on voluntarily to curb the flesh in the Spirit. St. Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 6:5: “with labor, with much fasting, and much watching.” Second, there is the fast one must endure while accepting it willingly, namely, want and poverty. St. Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 4:11: “We hunger and thirst to this hour,” and Christ says in Matthew 9:15: “When the bridegroom is taken from them, they will fast.” This is the kind of fasting Christ teaches us here when he is by himself in the desert and has nothing to eat, but bears this want gladly. We can abandon voluntary fasting and break it with food. But in the case of the second kind of fasting, we must wait and hope that God himself changes it and breaks it. This is why the latter is much nobler than the former because it is coupled with greater faith. This is also why the evangelist diligently introduces this gospel by noting that Christ was driven into the desert by the Spirit to fast and be tempted there lest anybody follow this example by his own choice and turn it in to a self-serving, self-willed and self-chosen fast. Instead, we should wait for the Spirit. He will send us enough fasting and temptation.

St. Louis ed., 11:532-534.

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