Humans have fasted for millennia, many in connection with their spiritual lives – even pagans fasted! However, their understanding of fasting was usually inadequate and vague, because they did not know and/or accept the revelation of the One True God. After all, it was He who instituted fasting in Paradise when He said: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). And it was He who transformed fasting into a discipline that yields long-lasting fruit. In this post, we share five lessons we all can learn as we struggle through the fast.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
1. Fasting restores discipline to our lives
We have seen what a lack of discipline and adherence to God’s law has done to American morality. The same happens in our own spiritual lives, if we lack discipline and do not obey the will of God. Gluttony has, unfortunately, become an acceptable way of life in our secular society. We have become accustomed to eating what we want, in whatever quantities we want, whenever we want to eat it. This leaves us wide open to all types of temptation.
The Church institutes fasts to restore much-needed discipline in our spiritual lives, which (by the way) benefits our bodies, too. Fasting, therefore, is not “optional” as many Orthodox Christians believe. In fact, the Canons of the Church Councils — Trullo, Gangra and Laodicia as well as the rules and regulations of Sts. Dionisius, Peter and Timothy of Alexandria — order us to fast.
According to Milas, “The Church has introduced fasting in the life of a Christian in order to enable man to live a life of piety and repentance. This regulation is based on the practice of the Church in the Old Testament and the examples of its Founder and the Apostles in the New Testament. The fast days which we must observe are ordered by the Church authorities and, therefore, are obligatory for all, except the sick; if a clergyman disobeys this rule he shall be deposed, and a layman excommunicated.”
2. Fasting connects us with the mystery of salvation
Noted Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann points out a striking similarity and interdependence between two events in the Bible — one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament. Both have to do with fasting.
He writes: “The first is the ‘breaking of the fast’ by Adam in Paradise. He ate of the forbidden fruit. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. Christ, the new Adam, — and this is the second event — begins by fasting. Adam was tempted and succumbed to temptation. The result of Adam’s failure is expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruit of Christ’s victory is the destruction of death and return to Paradise. It is clear, that in this perspective, fasting is something decisive and ultimate in importance. It is not mere ‘obligation’, a custom; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.”
St. Basil the Great confirms the above statement by saying: “Because we did not fast, we were chased out of Paradise; let us fast now, so that someday we return there.”
3. Fasting helps us master our passions
By eating less, we tame the passions of the flesh. When we eat too much, our minds and spirits are sluggish. They become the perfect target for the passions to wreak havoc upon. Our efforts in fasting, when done properly, enlighten our minds, strengthen our spirits, help us control our emotions, and silence the passions (sinful temptations) we must face every day. And in this strength, we are more capable of lifting our minds and hearts to God.
St. Isaac the Syrian once said, “Meager food at the table of the pure cleanses the soul of those who partake from all passion … for the work of fasting and vigil is the beginning of every effort against sin and lust … almost all passionate drives decrease through fasting.” Thus “a man who strives for salvation… must not allow himself to eat to fullness,” says St. Gregory of Sinai. Partake of everything that is permissible with thanksgiving, to the glory of God and avoid boastful arrogance; but refrain from every excess. (The Monks Callistus and Ignatius, 14c., Directions to Hesychasts.)
4. Fasting teaches obedience and submission
We must remember that fasting is not about personal preference; in other words, it is not up to us what foods we will abstain from. We don’t all just “go our own way” when it comes to the fast, inventing special rules that only apply to us. Instead, we submit to Holy Tradition, to the pattern set forth by the Church. In addition, we seek the guidance of our spiritual father, who can help us make sensible modifications to the fast depending on our circumstances (medical issues, spiritual needs, dietary restrictions, etc.). As Abba Antony said: “I know of monks who fell after much labor and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work and neglected the commandment that says: ‘Ask your father, and he will tell you’ (Deut. 32:7).”
Here the corporate becomes personal, and the Church applies her timeless wisdom to individuals with grace instead of legalism. Valuing a priest’s wisdom and submitting to his authority also helps guard against both spiritual pride in our efforts and the sense of failure that can result from overzealous striving.
5. Fasting purifies our hearts
The saints teach that purity of heart begins with the control of our bodily desires through fasting. As long as the flesh rules purity of heart will not exist. In the words of St. John Chrysostom fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.” In the first week of Great Lent, the Triodion reads:
As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion… Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God. Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.
As we begin this fast in preparation for the Nativity of our Lord, let us remember the proper spirit of the fast. Let us use this time to grow spiritually, to mature in our relationship with Christ. Then, having struggled in synergy with God, we can welcome our Savior with joy when He comes.