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Fasting: Finding the strength to heal

Protestants are often critical of the Orthodox practice of fasting, arguing that it can't "earn" us salvation (this is correct; it does not). Many Orthodox also fail to understand the importance of fasting—and therefore don't bother to fast. Amelia defends the Orthodox fast by detailing its many spiritual benefits.
Passion Week, 2008

Our people, the Orthodox people, are the people of Christ because, like Christ, they summarize the Gospel in these two virtues: prayer and fasting. They are convinced that every impurity, every impure thought, every impure desire, every impure spirit, can be chased out of man only by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21). In the depths of their hearts our people know Christ, they know Orthodoxy, know what it is that makes the Orthodox man Orthodox.
— Saint Justin (Popovic)

Only the Eastern Orthodox Church has preserved the Holy Tradition of fasting as it was practiced in ancient times. Prayer and fasting are how we've been taught to call upon the Lord. Presumably, most Christians still pray. Most of us, however, have given up on fasting—a tragic mistake that we wouldn't be so quick to make if we understood what fasting can help us achieve.

Why we fast.


We don't fast because doctors say it provides substantial medical benefit. We don't fast so we can feel proud of our efforts, nor do we fast to show others how "holy" we are. In the Orthodox Church, there's only one reason to fast, which is to bring us closer to the Lord.

When we fast, we break down the strength of the body so that the soul can grow in strength. Both the body and soul have needs, but we're most often accustomed to answering the body's needs and wants before the soul's. The body is assertive, even demanding at times, about what it needs and wants, whereas the soul is meek. It frequently happens that the cravings and desires of the flesh overshadow the quietly expressed needs of the soul, and the soul can rapidly fall into depravity, even without our awareness.

Fasting, then, is the process of denying the body in order to nurture and nourish the soul. It enables us to follow the narrow path, to follow the commandments that the Lord has given us and the example that He has set. It gives us the opportunity to become more Christ-like in everything that we do. As Orthodox Christians, we see these pursuits as necessary, acknowledging that how we live on earth has bearing on how we will live in eternity; fasting, along with prayer, is how we accomplish these pursuits.

At the same time, no one can deny that if we fast properly, there are secondary rewards we'll receive in the process. First and foremost: When we fast to repair and strengthen our relationship with God—our spiritual health—we also repair and strengthen our mental health and our sense of emotional stability.

With such massive numbers of Americans dependent on sleeping pills, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, and with even more of us suffering from the many physical and psychological ailments brought on by worry and stress, we need to re-think what it means to heal. If we desire to heal completely—not just to bandage our emotional wounds enough to survive, then we really need to try walking in Christ's footsteps. In other words, we need to heal for the glory of God, not just because we feel lousy.

According to the teachings of the holy fathers, the soul doesn’t belong to the physical body; the body belongs to the soul. As a result, when our bodies are involved in sinful activities, our souls, dwelling together with our bodies, suffer. They become dirtied, irritated and poisoned by the sin inside of them. The only way to relieve a suffering soul is to purge the sin that causes it to suffer in the first place. Prayer and fasting are the most powerful tools in our possession to help accomplish this.

The time-honored Christian practice of fasting isn't simply to deprive ourselves of foods we enjoy. That's only a small part of it, mainly intended to prepare us for the more important part: To deprive ourselves of the passions that control us from within. When we cleanse these sins from our hearts, bringing us closer toward Christ and salvation, we also cleanse them from our minds, bringing us closer toward mental and emotional peace.

The reason this works is because doing good and avoiding evil both serve to keep us closer to God. When we're close to Him, He answers our prayers. As many of the holy fathers have taught us, the Lord does the will of those who love Him. When we show God that we love Him by being pious, we help ourselves, while He, in turn, helps us.

Obedience.


God expects us to be obedient to Him always, not just during periods of fast. But when we fast, we become more attuned to the ways in which we aren't obedient. It's easier to recognize our sins when we're abstaining from pleasurable things than when we're in the middle of them—because, often, pleasurable things are the very things that end up leading us toward sin. When we fast both physically and spiritually, we're more clearly able to recognize God's will for us, and we find ourselves more committed to fulfilling it.

Diligence.


We all suffer from distractions and temptations that take us away from what we need to be doing. Fasting gives us the opportunity to reengage with whatever responsibilities we've abandoned, neglected, avoided, put off, forgotten about, hurried through, and so on. Of course, we need to be diligent about spiritual things first and foremost, but when we eliminate our spiritual laziness, we end up taking care of our laziness in worldly affairs, too. When we're spiritually diligent, we can more clearly see our God-given reasons for being here. In other words, we recognize a sense of purpose within ourselves—that is, God's purpose.

Benevolence.


We have to be diligent not just in avoiding what's evil but also in doing what's right and good. One of the Christian duties that holy fasting inspires us to fulfill us is to be charitable. When we help others out of true compassion, not out of obligation, we feel good about ourselves. This good feeling isn't the result of tapping into some vault of self-esteem, nor is it an expression of pride over having accomplished something. In fact, true kindness brings out the very opposite of self-esteem in us because it takes our focus off of ourselves and redirects it toward our neighbors. We feel good because we're doing God's will; it's one of the earthly rewards of being pious.

Prayer.


We're called to pray continually, not just several times a day. Often, though, we allow our worldly cares to become a higher priority than that of communicating with God. Fasting reminds us of our obligation to pray and, at the same time, provides us with a no-excuses opportunity to completely devote ourselves to it. The more frequently and fervently we pray, the more pure our souls become. The more pure our souls become, the easier it is to recognize and understand God's answers to our prayers.

Denial of the flesh.


When we deprive our bodies of the things they desire, we become more aware of what our souls desire, which is to be holy and sinless, the way God intended us to be. When we fast by denying ourselves the physical comforts and pleasures we crave, we realize that it is possible to survive without them and that we're foolish for so often letting them control us. By mortifying the desires of our flesh, we allow our souls the opportunity to be strengthened.

Vigilance.


Fasting puts us on 24-hour watch, making us ready to defend ourselves against sinful temptations. Vigilance doesn't mean being anxious or worried that the devil will attack; it means being as alert as possible in safeguarding the state of our souls, just as we would watch over a young child in the presence of an enemy. Evil temptations are always lurking behind each corner, but we fail to notice them when we're engrossed in worldly cares. Fasting reminds us to keep our spiritual eyes open. The comfort and feelings of security that vigilance brings don't come from thinking we can defeat the devil or temptations on our own—because we can't. Those safe feelings come from the knowledge that we can drive evil away with the sign of the Cross and by invoking the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in prayer.

Humility.


Humility before God means knowing we're powerless without Him. It's no psychological disorder to feel inadequate or helpless on our own, because indeed we are. When we break down our physical strength by fasting, we also break down the strength of our pride. Consequently, we can more accurately see our true position before God. Christian humility doesn't lead us into despair or hopelessness but instead toward gratitude and a holy confidence. These good feelings are based on the sure knowledge that God takes care of those who listen to Him and forgives those who desire to repent and start listening.

Meekness.


When others attack us, God calls us to turn the other cheek. This is because, in His kingdom: There are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last (Luke 13:30). Amid our many worldly concerns, we also find many reasons to be brash and even aggressive in our interactions with others, but fasting shows us that these reasons are only excuses on loan to us from the devil. But if we can concern ourselves with winning God's favor instead of winning disputes with our neighbors, we’ll relieve ourselves of all the anxieties that come with constantly trying to figure out how to appear one way or another. It doesn't matter whether anyone knows we're in the right; what matters is whether we are in the right.

Forgiveness.


Apologies mend fences, restore relationships, and ease the tensions brought on by worrying about how to prove ourselves "the winner." When we debilitate our pride through fasting, we expose the ugliness that hides inside of us, and we begin to feel remorseful about the things we've done wrong. Instead of wishing that this ugliness would go away—because it won't on its own, it's better to admit to it and ask for forgiveness from God and whomever else we've hurt. When we're forgiven, we no longer have to carry the heavy burdens of guilt, shame, anger, or hatred. Also, when we sincerely ask forgiveness of others, we realize that they often yearn to be forgiven, too.

Confession.


In the Orthodox sense of the word, confession isn't merely an opportunity to unload our consciences, even though we usually do feel better when we bring troublesome secrets out into the open. Confession before a priest is a Holy Mystery that begets God's mercy. This is different from confession in the secular world, which isn't anything more than an admission of guilt. Admitting guilt can be a good thing, and it might relieve a troubled conscience momentarily, but holy confession, which is a prayer for God's forgiveness, heals us from guilt entirely. Fasting helps us to identify and remember everything that needs confessing.

Repentance.


Guilt doesn't sanctify us or make us Christian. By itself, guilt only leads us to despair, which is sinful. In order to receive the Lord's mercy, we're called toward repentance and spiritual transformation. Fasting brings our shameful deeds keenly into focus, but it does so for the purpose of turning us toward repentance, not to make us feel guilty. It's true that we feel guilty on account of our unrepented sins, but true repentance lifts us above that guilt, because God's forgiveness erases the very sins that cause it.

Suffering.


The Fast is a time to suffer, not celebrate. The key is to separate the suffering that's ordained by God from the suffering we impose on ourselves. The suffering we cause ourselves is in vain because it’s a product of sin, even if our sin is as unintentional as the wrong reaction to someone else's offense. If we fast correctly, which includes confessing and repenting for our transgressions, God forgives those sins and relieves whatever sufferings they caused us. As for any remaining suffering that isn't the direct result of our sins, we can trust that it's something that God wants us, for whatever reason, to endure. Fasting enables us to accept that, and sometimes it even enables us to understand why.

* * *

If fasting were easy, we wouldn't find real joy in the celebration of Christ's resurrection. It wouldn't bring us to our knees before the Lord in humility, gratitude, or holy fear. If we don't go through the pain of repentance, we might not even see the ways in which we need the Lord's mercy. How can His resurrection mean anything to us if we haven't contemplated why we personally need it? The greatest holy day of the Christian year, then, is just a holiday—just Easter and not Pascha. It's about colored eggs and big meals but not about salvation for the righteous and victory over death.

If we fast for the right reasons, not just so we can say we did—meaning if we fast spiritually and not just with our bellies, the arduous and tiresome process will bring us far more joy than pain. Once we've experienced the pure joy that comes from living with a holier heart, we won't easily be able to justify returning to our old ways.

Each time we fast, if we do it correctly, we'll fast more intensely than we did the time before. Naturally, we can return to eating food, listening to music, and concentrating on our earthly work when the time of fasting has elapsed, but we'll do even these things differently. We'll eat to live, but we won't live to eat. We'll enjoy music and dancing, but we won't be controlled by it, nor will we allow it to lead us into sinful situations. We'll work our secular jobs and entertain our secular responsibilities, but we'll view them through Christian eyes, which will help us to succeed when we're faced with dilemmas and difficult decisions. The virtues made stronger by fasting aren't just for the times when the Church tells us to fast; we're expected to be holy in all seasons of life. Fasting is, very simply put, an opportunity to recharge our spiritual batteries.

Most of all, we have to understand and remember why we're called to fast. It's not because someone in a high enough position in the Church decided that we should; we fast because we know it's a process that leads somewhere—toward the healing of our souls and bodies, and, ultimately, toward our eternal salvation. There's always the potential for spiritual improvement, no matter how pious we might be in comparison to anyone else, or even compared to how we used to be. This is why we can't ever look at fasting as drudgery. If we fast properly and prayerfully, our efforts will always lead us toward God and His mercy.

Even though we'll surely experience pain in the process, because there's little we can learn or achieve in this life without pain, fasting brings us the most magnificent cause for hope. If we embrace fasting joyously and wholeheartedly, we open our souls to God to receive His forgiveness, His compassion, and His healing.

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.
— Matthew 25:29