The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah describes fasting in the following way: “This is the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo those things which hold us captive, to free the oppressed, to break every bond. To fast is to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked when you see them… Then shall your light break forth like the dawn.”
Jesus fasted. He prepared Himself for His public ministry by fasting forty days. And Jesus challenged His disciples when they failed to heal a suffering child by saying, “This kind [of demon] never comes out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
Giving Up in Order to Give
Fating is not an act of mortification or “self-denial” for its own sake. It is not intended to bring about suffering which is somehow pleasing to God. It is not a “law” which, if endured, wins us favor with God or which, if ignored, bring about guilt.
On the contrary, fasting is intimately connected with giving and less concerned with giving up. It involves regaining control of those things which we have allowed to control us – food, leisure, anger, pride, money; in short, anything which we should control but don’t. Fasting challenges us to do without certain things so that we might take the initiative to do those things which we often fail to do, to give up unnecessary things in order to give more time and attention to the really important elements we often overlook.
One of the Lenten hymns makes precisely this point: “Let us begin the most precious Fast with joy. / Let us shine with the holy commandments of Christ our God — / With the splendor of love, with the brilliance of prayer, with the cleanness of purity and the strength of blessed courage. / If we fast from food but not from our passions, our fasting is in vain. / The true fast is the rejection of evil, the silencing of the tongue, the laying aside of anger, and the cutting off of lust, foolish talk, lying and cursing — / Those things which disappear only through true and acceptable fasting.”
Traditionally, Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, and daily during the four Lenten seasons. Within the Christian community, each person fasts differently, according to his or her personal capability, spiritual insight, and vision.
All should fast, at least minimally, and in every instance, our fasting should be done: 1) in secret, without revealing to others what we are doing; and 2) joyfully, knowing that the aim of our fasting is not merely found in giving up but, rather, in our response to the opportunities for giving with which we are presented.
Regaining Control of Our Lives
Fasting, then, is not an exercise in dark, gloomy remorse. It is a joyful act. And it is this joy that transforms days and seasons of fating — and, in fact, every season of our lives — into times of rejoicing in the opportunity to change our words, our thoughts, our actions, and out lives through conquering those things which all too often conquer and control us.