The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah tells us fasting will “loose the bonds of wickedness.” It helps free us from sin and from the clutches of other gods. Isaiah likens fasting in the Orthodox Church to sharing with the hungry and caring for others, homeless, poor, naked, imprisoned, and thirsty. When we fast, we regain balance in our lives. We focus again on our ultimate goal: becoming closer to God.
What is fasting in the Orthodox Church?
It may be easier to say what fasting in the Orthodox Church is not, rather than what it is. Fasting is not the act of “self-denial” so many seem to think it is. We do not fast to bring suffering on ourselves because it “pleases God.” Fasting is not some “law” that wins us favor with God if we endure it, or brings guilt if we choose to ignore it.
On the contrary! Fasting intimately concerns itself with giving, not giving up. It involves actively taking control (or regaining control) over things we have allowed to control us. In other words, anything we should control but don’t (e.g. food, money, anger, pride). Though food is one of the key things people think of when they think of fasting, one does not always fast from food alone. For example, you could fast from sexual activity, harsh speech, idle time, etc. There are so many ways you can grow spiritually through this practice.
How and when should we fast?
All should fast, at least minimally. Traditionally, Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, daily during the four Lenten seasons, and from midnight on whenever planning to receive Holy Communion. Within the community, each person fasts differently, according to his or her personal capability, spiritual insight, and vision. In every instance, our fasting should be done:
- in secret, without revealing to others what we are doing; and
- joyfully, because our aim lies in giving, rather than giving up.
If possible, fast as a family. This makes the experience all the more edifying, because you are growing spiritually together. Set a schedule for which days you will fast (Fridays are usually are great starting point, to commemorate our Lord’s crucifixion). And teach yourself, your spouse, and your children about the spiritual benefit of what you’re doing.
Why do we fast?
Perhaps the best reason for Orthodox Christians to fast? Jesus Himself did. He prepared Himself for doing His Father’s work by fasting forty days and forty nights. While fasting He endured temptation as we all do, and set the ultimate example for us. Jesus shows us we all have the ability to overcome these temptations through prayer, fasting, and faith.
Fasting challenges us to give up certain things in order to give more time and attention to God. It aids us in attaining salvation. One of the Orthodox Church’s Lenten hymns illustrates this beautifully when it tells us to being the fast with joy. It tells us that if we only fast from food and not from our passions/vices, we fast in vain. The true fast, it says, rejects evil, silences the tongue, lays aside anger, and cuts off lust, lying, and cursing.
Fasting also has amazing benefits for our minds and our bodies, including weight loss, increased metabolism, and improved immune function.
Fasting, then, is not an exercise in dark, gloomy remorse in the Orthodox Church. It is a joyful act. And it is this joy that transforms days and seasons of fasting – and, in fact, every season of our lives – into times of rejoicing. Rejoicing in the opportunity to change our words, our thoughts, our actions, and our lives through conquering those things which all too often conquer and control us.
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