How should you fast?

April 10, 2019

One of the most common misconceptions these days is that fasting should be done in the spirit only. Meaning, there’s no need to fast in the body. For some, this is a logical idea… after all, Christians ought to be spiritual people so we should fast in the spirit. But is that how we should fast? Then again, the opposite extreme is also practiced by many Christians, where the fast is purely a bodily exercise. Although it is often done unintentionally, it is something that needs to be addressed. In this video, I would like tackle both of these common misconceptions and to explain what an Orthodox fast consists of.


First, I would like to emphasize that forgiveness of sins in the Orthodox Church happens through the cross and resurrection of Christ and our participation in these events through the mysteries of the Church. Fasting, on the other hand, is a tool for repentance. This is needed because humans sin. And as sin separates us from God, then the repentant fast reunites us with Him when it is coupled with prayer and the Eucharist. But fasting also has another purpose. St. Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Here, St. Paul says that he no longer lives but Christ lives within him. This is the true purpose of a Christian; which is sainthood. A true Christian wants to be in the true likeness of God. He is not only thinking about being saved and aiming for the 60% to merely pass and get to heaven. A Christian, like St. Paul, wants Christ to shine within him. And that is precisely the other purpose of fasting. Although we have hopes to be saved through the cross/resurrection and a life of repentance, fasting is a tool that grants us to overcome sin and become saints. For more on this, I suggest you watch a video by Fr. Anthony Mourad on fasting, to which I will put the link to in the description.


Now, the question is, can I imitate St. Paul and have the fullness of Christ living in me without fasting in the body? Is spiritual fasting enough? Remember St. Paul is a man that traveled the world for Christ to preach the gospel, he was severely beaten on many occasions, he suffered a lot. But at the same time, he was led by the Spirit throughout his service (so he was full of the Spirit) and he even went to the 3rd heaven. But even him said the following: “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” So this first century saint admitted that he lacked control over his body and that is precisely why he struggled against it. He says in 1st Corinthians: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” This great saint made it a point to discipline his body so he can bring it to subjection. So even in his high spiritual state, he did not ignore the discipline of the body and this is seen in 2nd Corinthians chapter 11, verse 27, where he says that he fasted often and was often in sleeplessness. St. Peter also agrees with St. Paul, he says: “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin…” He who has suffered in the flesh, which includes fasting, ceases from sin. When we see these great saints admitting to fighting the fleshly desires of the body, we should simply imitate them. More importantly, there is a reason behind Christ’s fast in the body. Although Christ Himself did not need to fast, He did it for our sake. Does it make sense for Christ to fast in the body while we don’t. The misconception comes from the idea that the spirit, the soul and the body are separate from one other. This is not true. We are human beings and a human being has a body, soul and spirit and these three are intertwined with each other. That is why when we eat a lot, we have trouble praying. Eating, here, is definitely a bodily function and prayer is obviously a spiritual function; yet, one affects the other. It is the same when our bodies are tired at night, we are not capable of praying or reading the Bible. And if we force ourselves to do it, the quality of the prayer is simply not the same. So, although it is a convenient idea to fast only in the spirit, it is a wrong one. And this idea is usually preached by people that have no desire to fast, because fasting is not easy. And yes, fasting is difficult because eating is such a strong human impulse. But this is precisely the point! If I can overcome this strong human desire, I am capable to overcome other desires as well, whether physical or spiritual. By the practice of overcoming this physical desire, we can also overcome sin, which, in turn, leads us to sainthood. It is said about St. Basil that he didn’t eat meat during his entire time of service as a bishop. St. John Chrysostom also ate soaked beans. These saints are saints through fasting and prayer. Our objective should be to imitate those people that Christ may also fully live within us and that we may enlighten the world around us.


Although fasting does require the participation of the body, it would be a big mistake to assume that this is the end of it. True orthodox fasting goes beyond the body. Again, if the objective of fasting is to be like Christ, then my behavior needs to be transformed to be like Christ’s. One of the most beautiful biblical passage discussing fasting can be found in Isaiah 58. Unfortunately, explaining it would be too lengthy so I would recommend that each of you read it when you get the chance. Instead, I will share with you what two of the most prominent Church Fathers say on the subject. First, St. Basil says: “Do not say to me that I fasted for so many days, that I did not eat this or that, that I did not drink wine, that I endured want; but show me if you from an angry man have become gentle, if you from a cruel man have become benevolent… Do not show forth a useless fast: for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven.” Again, the ultimate objective of fasting is to become a benevolent person and a gentle spirit just like Christ who said: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart…” Similarly, St. John Chrysostom says: “Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eye fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful… Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from fowl and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?” In other words, all of our senses ought to fast because our senses feed the soul. Also, our hands have to fast from evil works, and our legs have to fast from going to sinful places. I pray that we take the advice of all these saints and use the remainder of this great lent to offer a true fast that is acceptable to our God and to be transformed from glory to glory in His image and likeness.

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