Mar 7, 2017

There's More than One Way to Give up Pietism for Lent

By Ruth Meyer


I'm giving up pietism for Lent.

Perhaps you've heard this line before. Maybe you've even used it yourself. And the translation is that you're not giving up anything for Lent. Giving up something has long been a Roman Catholic tradition, but as Lutherans, such a practice may make us bristle. We’re saved by grace through faith, after all, not by works. So the suggestion that we do something may rub us the wrong way. It seems to smack of pietism to deny ourselves something for a season, as if we’re the Pharisee bragging about how much we do or how often we fast. And certainly, it’s true that our works cannot contribute to our salvation. But let’s take a closer look at fasting before we dismiss it outright.

Those of us who studied and memorized the catechism recall Martin Luther’s words about the Sacrament of the Altar. He asks, Who receives this sacrament worthily? And the answer is, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But . . . .” Let's be honest. Most of us focus on that “but.” We don't have to fast or do any bodily preparation after all. We are truly worthy and well prepared because we have faith in the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Whew. No fasting needed.

But hold on. Take a look at the Bible and you'll find numerous accounts of people fasting. Samuel had the Israelites fast when casting away their foreign idols and repenting of their sins (1 Samuel 7:6). David fasted when the child he bore with Bathsheba became ill (2 Samuel 12:16-17). Ezra fasted with his entourage returning to Jerusalem after the exile (Ezra 8:21-23). Nehemiah fasted when he heard the walls of Jerusalem were destroyed and the temple was in disrepair (Nehemiah 1:4). Esther had the entire Jewish population in Susa fast for her before she appeared before King Xerxes (Esther 4:15-16). Daniel fasted in Babylon (Daniel 9:3). Even Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-2). Clearly, the saints of old saw value in the practice of fasting.

Look a bit closer and you’ll find a common thread between all the examples above. Why did those people fast? They didn’t just abstain from eating and leave it at that. Nor was this a quick way to lose a few pounds. They prayed while they fasted. It was a spiritual discipline used in times of repentance or great need, and the gnawing feeling in their stomachs throughout the day reminded them to pray. Time not spent eating could be spent in prayer and God’s Word.

Turning once again to the biblical examples, the individuals in many of those instances had very specific prayer requests in mind while fasting. The Israelites were confessing their sin, praying that God would work true repentance in them. David prayed specifically for healing for his sick child. Ezra prayed for a safe journey to Jerusalem. Nehemiah prayed that he would find favor before the king to return to Jerusalem and held rebuild it. Esther and her people prayed not only for her appearance before the king, but also that they would be spared his murderous edict. Daniel prayed that Jerusalem would be restored. And in each instance, the people started by humbling themselves before God and confessing their sin. (The notable exception would be Jesus, of course, who didn’t need to repent.)

So what would modern day fasting look like? The practice of giving up something for Lent is likely as far as some of us have gone with fasting. I know people who give up chocolate, coffee, TV, or social media for the season of Lent. These are all fine things from which to abstain; a “fast” of a different type.

At the same time, there is no reason why we modern believers should never fast in the way Christians have for centuries. Perhaps every Sunday you could skip breakfast and instead pray and examine your heart before going to the Lord’s Supper. Maybe you could skip one meal a week, spending the time in reflection on God’s Word instead. Or you could try a day-long fast. It’s not completely going without food--just during the daylight hours. You can rise before dawn and eat breakfast, then spend normal mealtimes praying. After sunset, you can break your fast. This gets complicated if you have family meals together in the evening, so you might decide to break your fast at normal dinnertime so it doesn’t interfere with family time.

And what should you pray for while fasting? The instruction to “pray” is incredibly generic, but a fine place to start is confession. Take a good close look at your heart and allow the Holy Spirit to convict you of your sins in the context of God’s Word. Confess those sins to God and ask for His strength to fight against temptation. Then move from there into other things God has laid upon your heart. Perhaps you could make a list of people who need your prayers. Maybe you need to pray for the restoration of a relationship. You might pray for a friend to come to the faith. Or maybe you want to pray for God’s direction in your life or for a certain decision that needs to be made. If you’re a parent, you could spend time petitioning the Lord about your children, that He guide their paths and keep their faith strong. Or maybe there’s a societal issue that weighs heavily upon your heart--like abortion, for instance--and you’d like to pray that legislation would be reversed. So long as you’re praying for God’s will to be done, there’s no “wrong” thing for which to pray.

It is interesting that Jesus spoke about fasting in His Sermon on the Mount, and especially that He talked about it immediately after the section on prayer. He begins by saying, “When you fast . . . .” It’s not “if.” He indicates here that fasting should naturally be part of a Christian’s life. But He has a word of caution--you aren’t to look somber or boast about your fasting to others. It’s to be done in private--something between you and your Heavenly Father. Fasting is a useful discipline, but not one that makes you any more holy in God’s eyes. Daniel says it well as he sums up his prayer during his fast: “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18).

So yes, let’s give up pietism for Lent. And we are free to fast as we do so. 


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Ruth Meyer is living out her vocation as a Lutheran woman in the roles of sister, daughter, mother, and wife.  Her greatest joy in life is living as a redeemed child of God, who has blessed her in her many vocations.  Besides her human relationships, Ruth's other interests include music and writing.  She is a church musician and has a special love for Lutheran hymnody.  Her children's book, Our Faith from A to Z  and her adult novel, Grace Alone, are available through CPH.  Ruth keeps her own blog at truthnotes.net.  Her hope is that through her writing you are encouraged and perhaps even challenged in your God-given vocations. 

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