When Should We Not Fast?
Since posting the blog and podcast on the point of fasting, I’ve run across some very screwed up applications of fasting that is undermining some people. So, I’m going to address these misunderstandings in this follow-up blog on when not to fast. The fast recognizes that we are spiritual/physical hybrid creatures, so that what happens in the body impacts the mind, just as what happens in the mind impacts the body. Fasting is a deliberate tinkering with that relationship by depriving the body of the usual amount and typical kinds of protein and sugar rich foods. As a result, fasting destabilizes our normal mental equilibrium, compelling us to use greater mental and spiritual self-control to hold to our virtuous lives. Too little fasting won’t challenge us enough, while too much fasting can lead to catastrophic moral results. And that is why we must always remember that fasting is for us, not for God. God is not impressed if we fast excessively and so undermine our rational self-control that we destabilize our capacity for charity! We should instead fast thoughtfully and prudently by considering how it will impact our overall constitutions in such a way as to stretch us without breaking us. Except for the three theological virtues which are directed to God without limit, the virtue of moderation applies to everything including fasting.
You are not more spiritual if you fast while pregnant or nursing. You are less spiritual because you are misusing a tool that God gave you for the good.
The Church includes exceptions to the fast that are a case in point. Pregnant and nursing women are not supposed to fast. Let’s explore why that is in order to derive the principle at work so that we can then apply that principle to other cases. If a pregnant or nursing woman fasts, she risks depriving not just herself but her baby of vitally needed nutrients. Such deprivation directly undermines the good of her baby’s health. Since loving her baby requires directing her motherly efforts toward her baby’s good, fasting while pregnant or nursing is a lack of charity on a core natural duty. You are not more spiritual if you fast while pregnant or nursing. You are less spiritual because you are misusing a tool that God gave you for the good. Thus, the Church forbids such fasting. Fasting is not an end in itself, but is instead a means to the end of love.
Everything that God created can be misused, even fasting. The Pharisees misused the fast to lord it over the common people who presumably found fasting much harder going than the rich, leisured Pharisees. If you have to work in the fields or in the olive presses or at the fishing nets for twelve to fourteen hours a day, you’re going to need a vast number of calories. That was the lot of most people in Judea in Jesus’ day. So, when a Pharisee walked by you and thumbed his nose at your minimal fast, his disdain was nothing but his pride showing his ignorance. For where did the olive oil, the wine, the fish, the lamb, and the beer that adorned his feast table come from each week, if not from the labor of these very people that he mocked? Nothing got Jesus’ ire up more than snooty religious people mocking, condemning, and crushing the poor. The fact that the Pharisees fasted more seriously than the common man made them worse. Why? Because the fast became a tool of their self-righteousness, a means for them to claim superiority over others. Since the purpose of the fast is to promote love, clearly, their fasts were undermining them, all the while offering them the veneer of spirituality. But Jesus was having none of it.
It is imprudent and uncharitable to those for whom we have responsibilities if we use the extent of Jesus’ fast as a model that undermines our capacity to carry out those responsibilities.
Now, Jesus himself fasted prior to his temptation for forty days in the wilderness. I’ve been to the site myself, and it is all harsh rocky terrain with barely any water, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit by day. Is Jesus’ pre-temptation fast a model for us? We take the forty days of his fast as the model for our Lenten and Advent fasts, but only very, very few of us follow the extremity of his fast—only water for forty days! In fact, those who do emulate the degree of his fast come almost exclusively from the community of monks whose lives are very different from the rest of us. Monks do not have jobs that they must drive to each day. They don’t have wives who depend on them to be sober, stable partners. They don’t have children who need their fathers to be rational and understanding. They don’t have the same sorts of civic and social responsibilities that the rest of us have either. If most of us were to copy Jesus’ fast, we would either die or become seriously physically and mentally ill. But the monk lives a different kind of life to begin with, and so, some monks will carry out very extensive fasts under the supervision of their brothers, lest they get into trouble. Jesus was more like a monk than a modern-day dad. He didn’t have a wife, he had no children, he had no job (as he started his ministry), he had none of the usual responsibilities that would make disappearing for forty days in the mountains problematic. What’s more, Jesus himself nearly went too far, because after his encounter with Satan, he was so depleted that angels had to show up to “minister” to him, i.e., offer him food, water, and medical care as well as get him off those mountains, because he never would have been able to climb down in his condition. So, it is imprudent and uncharitable to those for whom we have responsibilities if we use the extent of Jesus’ fast as a model that undermines our capacity to carry out those responsibilities. It is incumbent on Church leaders to always teach fasting accompanied by prudence and moderation, because extremism undermines charity.
Fasting to a degree that undermines one’s rational self-control rather than merely challenging it is no different in these cases than the pregnant or nursing mother.
So, when we think about fasting today, it is a good thing to fast in order to exercise our moral muscles. But when we fast, we should exercise prudence to ensure that we do not fast to excess. Having a fasting partner can be most helpful to ensure that both you and he are healthy and morally expanding rather than morally collapsing. If you are married, you should fast in consultation with your spouse, for no one knows you like your spouse, and if she says, “Wait a moment, you won’t be able to drive your truck if you do all that,” then it just won’t do to reply, “Honey, if only you understood how much more spiritual this extreme fasting will make me! God will drive for me.” It won’t do at all, because your position is exactly like that of the Pharisees who used their fasts as an excuse to betray their duties toward others. Spouses have deep moral duties toward one another. Parents have deep moral duties to their children. Fasting to a degree that undermines one’s rational self-control rather than merely challenging it is no different in these cases than the pregnant or nursing mother. Since the purpose of the fast is to increase charity, a fast that undermines one’s rational self-control by destabilizing your body actually undermines charity. And that is the pride of the Pharisees showing up in middle income American households.
Furthermore, there is a kind of fasting that works on a social level. For example, in the Eastern Orthodox Church (the other half of the Church, as the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the Eastern Orthodox Church’s sacramental integrity), fasting is taken very seriously, and it is done as a whole community. The communal element motivates everyone because you don’t want to be left out, helps everyone with the diet because the fasting foods can be shared, and whets everyone’s anticipation for the Pascal feast (that begins after their Easter Vigil). However, community fasting can prove detrimental when it becomes competitive. It’s just too easy for men to treat fasting like sports and try to “out-fast” the other guys. But fasting isn’t for the other guys. It isn’t even for God. It’s for you. Thus, Jesus instructs us when fasting to keep it to ourselves. The exact nature of your fast isn’t anyone else’s business except your fasting partner, your spouse (who has the right to know what you are doing), and your priest (who likewise has the right to intervene if you’re getting carried away). So, we should not be engaged in any kind of competitive fasting, because it moves the focus off love by making fasting an end in itself.
Taking on an extreme fasting and prayer regimen will not lead to your healing from your physical or mental illness, because God does not reward our failure of charity.
People suffering from various forms of mental challenges in their lives must take great care before engaging in a fast. Their balance of sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and medication is often a knife-edge arrangement that took months of trial and error to effect. It is immoral for such a person to jeopardize his rational self-control by anything but the most minor fast (like the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts) if any, because his stability is vitally important not only to his own life functionality, but to the lives of those around him. In these cases, love requires that you not fast, just as love requires the pregnant or nursing mother to not fast. Keep in mind that taking on an extreme fasting and prayer regimen will not lead to your healing from your illness, because God does not reward our failure of charity. Miraculous healings are extremely rare, so, when we are physically and/or mentally ill, our prayers are better served when they focus on our remaining faithful to the steps necessary to maintain our mental, physical, and moral stability, to endure the trial of life that we have been handed, and to discover ways in spite of all that we are going through to reach out and love those around us. For just as the purpose of fasting is always love, so also, the purpose of prayer is likewise always love. So, if you cannot or should not fast due to physical or mental malady, you can nevertheless always pray and love.
Now, I’m going to fast during Lent, just as I hope most of you who are able and permitted are going to do. I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do, because that is private between my wife and myself. We share our fasting regimen because it is much easier on households when we are all doing the same thing. But we are both cognizant of what fasting will do to us by way of challenging our moral equilibrium, and we are both on guard to ensure that our nutritional balance does not become undermined by doing something to an extreme or by failing to properly balance what is missing, say, from meat with something else. The fast is absolutely useless if we allow it to undermine our love for one another. So, this is another of the gracious benefits of marital life, that we can keep watch on one another both morally and nutritionally during the fast.
When we misuse fasting in such a way that we undermine our own charity, it is not an act of great spirituality but instead an act of cowardice in the face of duty.
Remember: fasting without moderation is just as much of a vice as any other human activity done without moral virtue. Fasting does not relieve us of our moral and charitable responsibilities. Its purpose is to increase our charity. When we misuse this tool in such a way that we undermine our own charity, it is not an act of great spirituality but instead an act of cowardice in the face of duty. Socrates famously said, “Know thyself.” We must be cognizant of our own constitutions and know our limits in order to properly fast. So, fast, yes, but always fast in prudence for the sake of love.