The Purpose of Fasting

I’ve mentioned the lovely little blog Grace Laced before, and today I bring it up because it led me to an insightful (and surprisingly Orthodox) post about the purpose of fasting, which is of course very relevant as we are now full swing into the Lenten season.

Every Monday, Grace Laced hosts “Grace Laced Mondays,” an event that brings bloggers together via the Grace Laced site to “link up” their posts and thus engage in a dialogue with each other (I have yet to participate). Recently, I was looking at some of the links to other blog posts and chose one at random; it took me to a post on By the Waters. As I began reading it seemed to be another quaint “mommy blog” about life and family. About halfway through, however, the post transitions into a discussion about godly love, worship, and fasting. I won’t recreate the entire post here (because it’s worth reading for yourself!), but I love how the author clarifies fasting as an act of worship:

Among the exercises of worship, fasting is not my favorite. It gives no pleasure, it severely restricts, and our hunger makes us uncomfortably aware of our humanity. It is like prayer, except harder. Its discomfort and lack of immediate gain (if we follow the rules) is precisely what makes fasting a most suitable posture to offer to God worship that is not self-seeking.

When we fast, we intentionally deprive ourselves of normal goods and pleasures, such as meat and dairy products (the Orthodox way). The purpose of this is not legalistic; we do not fast in an attempt to “earn” salvation or righteousness, or to make ourselves feel more holy and better than others. And if we do, it is not the fault of fasting; there is a deeper, heart issue that must be addressed.

Fasting is an exercise of self-discipline, but its purpose is not to make us better people (at least not in the way a regular diet or self-help program intends to); the purpose of fasting is to gain control over our passions instead of allowing them to control us. Exercising control over food is just one such example (but a very real struggle over one of our greatest passions as humans – gluttony), and Lent helps us exercise control over all of our passions, temptations, lusts, and selfish desires. We do this because if our lives are dominated by our passions, we spend more time thinking about and worshipping them than we do God. Lent is the particularly appropriate time for fasting because it is the season of remembering Christ’s earthly life, crucifixion, and ultimate resurrection and conquering of sin and death. And how do we celebrate the resurrection? By feasting, another very tangible way of recognizing our freedom in salvation.

When I started writing this post, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Fasting is more difficult to articulate than I thought, and I hope I’ve offered some insight into the Orthodox perspective (and haven’t confused you). It’s important to remember that we fast as a religious discipline to bring us closer to God, not as a means of earning our own righteousness (which is partly why we don’t fast all the time). If you break fast during Lent, we won’t kick you out of the Pascha (Easter) service; God welcomes the long-faithful and the late converts, and everything in between. And I can say this confidently: in my personal experience, fasting has only ever been beneficial.

I’ll close this post with some words from the Fathers on fasting, which our church printed in the Sunday bulletin a few weeks ago. I think they summarize well the combination of physical and spiritual discipline that must happen simultaneously for truly fruitful fasting.

If thou, O man, dost not forgive everyone who has sinned against thee, then do not trouble thyself with fasting.  If thou dost not forgive the debt of they brother, with whom thou art angry for some reason, then thou dost fast in vain – God will not accept thee. Fasting will not help thee, until thou wilt become accomplished in love and in the hope of faith. Whoever fasts and becomes angry, and harbors enmity in his heart, such a one hates God and salvation is far from him. – Venerable Ephraim the Syrian

An excellent faster is he who restrains himself from every impurity, who imposes abstinence on his tongue and restrains it from idle talk, foul language, slander, condemnation, flattery, and all manner of evil-speaking, who abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance and withdraws from every evil. – St. Tichon of Zadonsk

By fasting it is possible both to be delivered from future evils and to enjoy the good things to come. We fell into disease through sin; let us receive healing through repentance, which is not fruitful without fasting. – St. Basil the Great

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