the purpose of fasting

Today the Orthodox Church begins 8 weeks of fasting. This week we are vegetarians. Beginning next Monday we are vegans for 7 weeks. Fasting is one of those disciplines that has not only fallen by the wayside for most Christians but there is now push back from many about the purpose and the meaning of fasting. What you find below the picture of my dinner last night is adapted from a teaching by Fr. Tom Hopko.

My dinner table last night. Delux Hamburgers before the 8 week fast from meat.

One of the most powerful things that can be said about fasting is that Jesus Himself fasted and taught His disciples to fast.

And when you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men, but your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

The purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It is to give power to the soul so that it would not yield to temptation and sin. According to St. Seraphim, fasting is an “indispensable means” of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life (Saint Seraphim’s Conversation with Motovilov), and Jesus Himself taught that some forms of evil cannot be conquered without it (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29)

Man does not fast because it pleases God if His servants do not eat, for, as the lenten hymns of the Church remind us, “the devil also never eats.” (Lenten Triodion) Neither do men fast in order to afflict themselves with suffering and pain, for God has no pleasure in the discomfort of His people. Neither do men fast with the idea that their hunger and thirst can somehow serve as a “reparation” for their sins. Such an understanding is never given in the scriptures or the writings of the saints, which claim that there is no “reparation” for man’s sin but the crucifixion of Christ. (cf. Romans 5:15-17, Ephesians 2:8-9)

Why have we fasted, and Thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and Thou takest no knowledge of it?  Behold, in the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and fight…Fasting like yours … will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free…is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them… Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall protect you. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; then you shall cry, and He will say: Here I am. (Isaiah 58:3-9)

Fasting in the body, oh brethren, let us also fast from sin.

This is the Church’s song in the lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints.

…in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.

Saint Paul himself fasted, and in his teaching on food insists that men fast and do so in secret, without mutual inspection and judgment.

Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many of whom I have often told you and now tell you with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:17-19)

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything. Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food – and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (I Corinthians 6:12-13)

Epiphanius, bishop of Cyprus, called the abbot Hilarion to see him. A portion of fowl was set before them and the bishop invited the abbot to eat. The old man said, “Forgive me, Father, but since the time I took this habit I have never eaten anything that has been killed.” And Epiphanius said to him, “And from the time I took this habit I have let no man sleep who has anything against me, and neither have I slept holding anything against anyone.” And the old man said to him, “Forgive me, Father, for your way of life is greater than mine.” (The Sayings of the Fathers)

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1 Comment

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One response to “the purpose of fasting

  1. gailbhyatt

    This is an excellent reminder. It’s SO easy to get wrapped up in all the outward details of fasting and completely miss the opportunity to grow closer to Christ and to grow stronger as a soldier in an unseen warfare.

    Having observed the fasting that the nuns at St. Paisius Monastery do, I was able to see, first hand, the fruit that it produces. Their way of life (which includes fasting) produces and incredible, real, concrete love for God and for people. I’m going to take their example into Lent with me this year.

    Thanks again for the reminder.

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