It helps us grasp the truth about what really matters, and it’s a “transferable discipline.”
Why do we fast? According to some Protestants, we believe that we are earning God’s salvation by fasting. That is not the case, however. Fasting does not save us; the God-Man Jesus Christ saves us. But God uses means, including fasting, to do so.
We don’t fast because we despise the body. Extreme dualism, which surfaces regularly throughout history, disparages the physical and the body in an unchristian way. The Incarnation and the Resurrection, however, tell us that God does not despise the body, and neither should we. Fasting is not a punishment of the body, as though the body were the source of sin; it is what comes out of the heart that defiles a person, not his or her natural bodily needs.
Fasting is not a way of proving one’s Orthodoxy or piety, to God or to anyone else; we see this in the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which comes five Sundays before Lent in order to prepare us for it. According to Proto-Presbyter Alexander Schmemann, “No one can acquire the spirit of repentance without rejecting the attitude of the Pharisee. Here is a man who is always pleased with himself and thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. Yet, he has reduced religion to purely formal rules and measures it by the amount of his financial contribution to the temple” (“The Liturgical Structure of Lent”). And, one might add, he measures it by the strictness of his fast.
So why do we fast? There are at least two reasons, I think. One is that it reminds us that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We do live by bread – we are not angels or demons – but we need more than bread to live. When in the middle of the fast our minds turn to food out of the blue, we are reminded that we depend on God for everything – for the air we breathe. To be fully and properly human, to be fully alive, to share the divine life – we need God. Fasting can remind our hearts of this truth to which our minds perfunctorily assent. And then we can pray.
Another reason to fast is that it brings up to the surface of our consciousness the things that challenge us as individuals so that we can meet them head on. Our daily lives are filled with responsibilities and tasks, small pleasures and fears. We don’t think much about God. When we fast in Great Lent, when we give up dairy and meat, our bodies change, and we notice the lack. It affects us at more than the physical level. A few times I have been surprised at how moved I was at the thought of meat! This is ridiculous! What is going on in me? I wondered. Why would food make me emotional?
There may be physiological reasons, having to do with anxiety and bio-chemistry, but what also happens with fasting is that the things that would control us come to the surface. These may be covetousness or anxiety, lust or pride. The interior landscape has been simplified; in some ways we are in a desert where the Adversary can be identified and the choices are clearer. We are free to choose. Then we need to ask the question, What do I really want? Repentance is about choosing the right over the wrong, the good over the bad – repeatedly. Fasting is a “transferable discipline.” Just as one learns to resist the temptation to eat what is so appealing in Lent – that cheese in the fridge, that hamburger at the fast-food place – one learns to resist the other temptations. These other things will not make up for what we feel is lacking in us, or for any emptiness in our lives.
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Similarly, fasting was made for us; we were not made for fasting. It is better to aim low and hit the target, than it is to aim high, fail, and give up. But even if we do give up, we can return to the fast and try again. It is a discipline that is meant to help us on our way to God, and not to discourage us.
So there are two out of many reasons to fast: we remember our need of God, and we face our temptations and begin to overcome them.
Chris Humphrey, a member of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, Pittsburgh, is too recent a member of the Orthodox Church to speak with much authority about fasting, but he has heard some good teaching on the subject, and perhaps the freshness of his experience will make up for its short history.