Far too often, we lose sight of the true meaning of fasting in Orthodox Tradition. We make fasting into something it is not, imposing the views of secular culture onto the Church and expecting Her to accommodate us. In several of our other posts, we explore what fasting is, in the context of Orthodoxy. In this post, we instead explore what fasting is NOT.
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1. Fasting is not about our personal preferences
Growing up, you may have heard some non-Orthodox Christians tell you they planned to give up chocolate for Lent. Or television, video games, candy, etc. Still others might have told you they were going to skip one meal a day for the entirety of Lent, or that they would only consume liquids until Easter (more appropriately called Pascha). In most of the West, fasting was (and still is) personal, just you and Jesus. You can set whatever dietary rules you’d like and do your own thing.
By contrast, fasting in the Orthodox Church is corporate. In other words, we are all on the journey of the Fast together and (for the most part) follow the same fasting calendar and dietary restrictions as a group. The Church, in Her wisdom, has laid out the path for us. We don’t determine what we give up, when, or for how long. Instead, we humble ourselves by submitting to the wisdom of the Church and walk together as the Body of Christ. We set aside our own selfish wills and instead trust in God’s.
2. Fasting is not a private matter between you and God
Because fasting is not about personal preferences, but instead according to the rules of the Faith, it follow naturally that fasting itself is not just between you and God. We do not fast whenever we feel inclined to do so, nor do we practice fasting alone apart from others.
The entire community of Orthodox Christians fasts together, because fasting isn’t about our own personal feelings. Rather, it is about our collective need to curb the passions of the flesh and seek God. Fasting puts material things, like food, into their proper place, so we can focus on our relationship with Christ. And fasting as a group saves us from the sins of pride and delusion, of thinking we are somehow better than everyone else because we fasted from more things than so-and-so.
3. Fasting is not about suffering.
Many of us tend to look at the fasting primarily through the lens of deprivation. We aren’t allowed to have x, y, z; this is true. However, we must remember that we are not enduring suffering in order to please God (many mistakenly believe this). Neither are we punishing ourselves by fasting.
Fasting as an Orthodox Christian is joyous. Because fasting is a self-discipline we voluntarily impose upon ourselves in order to become better persons and better Christians.
5. Fasting is not just about food
In the Orthodox Church, fasting has two aspects: the physical and the spiritual. The first implies abstinence from rich food, such as dairy products, eggs and all kinds of meat. Spiritual fasting, on the other hand, consists in abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds.
The true purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It is to give power to the soul so that it would not yield to temptation and sin. According to St. Seraphim, fasting is an “indispensable means” of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, and Jesus Himself taught that some forms of evil cannot be conquered without it (Matt. 12:21).
Without the spiritual components of prayer and almsgiving, fasting becomes nothing more than a diet. If we abstain from certain foods without devoting extra time to prayer (time that has been freed up from planning and preparing fancy meals), we are simply following a food plan. Likewise, if we abstain from certain foods without donating extra money (money saved by not buying expensive meats and cheeses), we are simply giving up things without truly cultivating a spirit of giving in our lives.
Fast from the passions
Let us not only fast from food this year, but also from foul language, rude behavior, and wicked thoughts. Let us tame not only our stomachs, but our hands and tongues and minds as well. May the Lord grant each of you the strength to persevere through the fast, and the humility to pick yourself up again when you fail. A blessed fast to you all, Amen!
Keep Reading: 5 Lessons We Can Learn From Fasting