Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Christians and Jews of the ancient world practiced periods of fasting pretty seriously. Jesus did too, including those forty days in the wilderness prior to his temptation. But many Christian communities around the world don’t fast at all. Some Protestants suspect the activity, thinking it confuses genuine spirituality with mere ritual. They believe that the essence of prayer is spiritual, so that, once one has understood and begun to practice prayer, fasting becomes an unnecessary, really, a spiritually immature relic of Jewish practice. This line is taken in other cases too, for they sometimes insist that it’s the faith, not the water of baptism which saves. Similarly, they will tell you that it’s what’s in the heart, not what’s in the grape juice and crackers, that makes their “Lord’s Supper” effectual. The notion that God places any premium on the physical, such that the physical might function as the conduit of divine grace, is viewed merely as all that sacramental nonsense from the Catholics.
Why doesn’t God just make all things new right now and get us out of this painful world? Do we really need to add to our misery by requiring fasting?
However, even in the sacramental traditions of Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, you find a lot of people who don’t take fasting all that seriously. Perhaps some feel that since in their traditions alcohol or sex are so restricted, adding the fast is just going too far. After all, if God’s purpose for us is total and complete fulfillment as human beings, then why does the Church promote fasts which clearly restrict human function? In fact, why doesn’t God just make all things new right now and get us out of this painful world? Do we really need to add to our misery by requiring fasting? What is fasting supposed to do for us that makes it worthwhile? Why, in other words, are we commanded to do it? What is the point?
The Christian texts and traditions make abundantly clear that our destiny is fully human, not some weird spiritual floating around in a mystical heaven.
Let’s start unpacking this important question with the big issue of divine purpose. The Christian texts and traditions make abundantly clear that our destiny is fully human, not some weird spiritual floating around in a mystical heaven. God intends to replace the current physical universe with an even better physical universe, a place designed for human beings. So, why doesn’t God just fulfill our human existence now? Get on with it, right?
Christian virtues are not such liars as to profess to protect men from the miseries of this life.
Let’s approach the problem of suffering. Most of the suffering that we experience in this life is due to the choices that we and others make. If you think about it, a lot of the bad things that bother you are what nasty people do to you and the nasty things you do to them. But we also suffer from disease, occasionally from natural disasters, and definitely all of us from death. These latter elements are all due to the fall of our race into sin, death, and decay. In the City of God St. Augustine explained that Christian virtues are not such liars as to profess to protect men from the miseries of this life. We just have to plod on, finding ways to love one another and to love God in the midst of it all. Suffering proves to be a remarkable purifier of love, because loving when it’s really hard establishes love as a virtue in our character, rather than a mere feeling of the moment. If everything was one perpetual grand feast, we might not become the best versions of ourselves.
The fast helps prepare us for the virtue that we will need, because it helps us focus our mental discipline on loving God and loving others when it’s, frankly, a lot harder.
In fact, this is part of the point of the fast. We fast during Lent (and in the Orthodox tradition sometimes also abstain from sex with one’s spouse) in order to add some rigorous exercise of our moral character under trying circumstances. It’s not unlike an athlete who practices with hard runs and tough workouts, so that when the contest finally engages, he’s ready. Similarly, in this world we will all face the contest of suffering in some way or other. The fast helps prepare us for the virtue that we will need, because it helps us focus our mental discipline on loving God and loving others when it’s, frankly, a lot harder. Absent sex and food, we tend to get cranky. Learning how to choose love anyway is, accordingly, a useful discipline.
God has nothing against pleasure. He made a world chock full of astounding pleasures for human beings. But he wouldn’t want us to choose to pursue pleasure instead of the need of our neighbor.
However, this doesn’t mean that sex and food are in any way bad. On the contrary, they are used as sacraments by Jesus himself. For sex becomes the image of his love for his Church, just as bread and wine become the image of his offering his life for our consumption and spiritual growth. God has nothing against pleasure. He made a world chock full of astounding pleasures for human beings. But he wouldn’t want us to choose to pursue pleasure instead of the need of our neighbor. We have to rank goods in a hierarchy. So, St. Paul says that meat sacrificed to an idol is still terrific meat if it’s received with thanksgiving to God. But, if your neighbor is freaked out by that meat because he came from a pagan background, then St. Paul says, don’t eat it in front of him! But I like meat, you might say. Of course, you do. That’s perfectly normal. Still, your love of succulent meat is less an important good than the need of your friend. It’s no different than not drinking alcohol in front of an alcoholic. Love always takes precedence, because the things God made in the world are for man, not man for them. So, when it comes to competition between the needs of a neighbor and my own enjoyment of what God made in the world, I must set aside my enjoyments for the sake of love. Fasting specifically trains us to voluntarily restrict our desire for food while at the same time increasing our prayer and giving to our neighbors. Then, when we are called upon to exercise self-control in natural disasters, for example, we aren’t the ones who whine and complain and make everyone else miserable. We’re “used to it,” and so, we roll up our sleeves and leap into the charitable activities to help one another.
Fasting is an exercise that only when accompanied by prayer and giving transforms you further on the journey toward becoming fully consumed by the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
It's important that we always remember that fasting isn’t for God; fasting is for us. If we start to think that fasting is for God, then we can tend toward the legalism of the Pharisees who used their public fasts as proof of their higher devotion toward God than those around them. Jesus lambasted them for their arrogance and pride, for they were “self-righteous and despised others.” So, no, fasting doesn’t make you holy. Nor does fasting make you spiritual. What fasting does is make you cranky and irritable. Fasting is an exercise that only when accompanied by prayer and giving transforms you further on the journey toward becoming fully consumed by the virtues of faith, hope, and love. And it is love, and nothing else, that ultimately fits us for the vision of God. So, merely fasting is as worthless as all of the other rituals, which unaccompanied by love, paradoxically end up making us worse. However, prayer without fasting is weak, as Jesus himself warns in Matthew 17:21, for prayer must include more than the heart to be full. Prayer must be engaged sacramentally, according to what we human beings really are—spirit/matter composites. Thus, to pray only with the mind and to forget the body is to miss its fullness. Fasting and prayer . . . that is the winning combination when bathed in love for my neighbor.
And how could it be otherwise when we think on the Incarnation? From the earliest records we possess, the Church viewed the physical world as part of redemption. For the Eternal Word did take on human flesh in His incarnation, died a human death, rose again as a physical person, and ascended into the heavens in his body. Strange that such an emphasis should be placed on his broken body and blood if it’s only the spiritual meaning that counts. St. Paul, too, tells us not only that the created world isn’t ignoble, but that it eagerly awaits the redemption of its kings so that it might be restored to peaceful order. The reduction of the physical to something insignificant (or even evil) isn’t Christian at all but became central to the Gnostic way of thinking, that early heresy that the writings of St. Paul and St. John so strongly oppose. Unfortunately, strains of Gnostic ideology survive well into our time so that we still confront this strange rejection of half of God’s creation, the material world, in favor of the “purely” spirited existence of the angels.
There are several ancient stories that put the original Gnostic heresy in the hearts of the fallen angels, for it is said that when they heard the notion that God intended to create man, they were so appalled at the “indignity” of a co-mixing of flesh and spirit, that they rebelled. They were the superior ones, and how dare the Most High conceive a second kind of reality, this physical playground with its gardens and naked people romping about in the open!
In the Gnostic sects the body is either imprisoned so that not even the virtue of moderation need be employed, as in the preference for tea-totaling over sensible drinking, or it is regarded as insignificant so that neither the forbidding of gluttony nor the command to fast receives much attention.
So, perhaps it isn’t so strange after all that a proper theology of the body is foreign to those strains of Christendom still under Gnostic sway. In those sects the body is either imprisoned so that not even the virtue of moderation need be employed, as in the preference for tea-totaling over sensible drinking, or it is regarded as insignificant so that neither the forbidding of gluttony nor the command to fast receives much attention. But this won’t do, will it? For when the king speaks, his subjects listen. And on this matter of fasting, he spoke, not once or twice, but many times. So significant was the connection between prayer and fasting that he prepared himself for his temptation with a forty day fast.
The Church has historically followed his lead, for the great Lenten fast prior to the Easter Feast lasts for forty days. Similarly, the season of Advent is traditionally a time of fasting and repentant reflection, a “trimming of the lamps” in eager anticipation of the coming bridegroom, the re-enactment of the first coming of the King. And, traditionally, every week the Church remembers the horror of his death with a Friday fast just as we celebrate his resurrection each week with the Sunday Feast. It becomes difficult to oppose the weekly fast but endorse the weekly feast. Once we reject the notion that a human person can be spiritual without being physical, once we endorse the divine idea that our physical/spiritual existence is not schizophrenic but one whole human existence just as his was, then we can no more take the fast out of prayer than the feast out of Easter.