How does fasting, or any other spiritual discipline, increase our ability to love? (Just a note. You can plug in prayer, encountering the Word through the Scriptures, almsgiving, and generosity instead of fasting. What applies to fasting applies to them as well.)
If fasting is designed, as the Scriptures and the Church Fathers proclaim, to be one of the vehicles we use to reach the destination of Christ/love, then perhaps it would be important to focus on the meaning of love. Perhaps knowing the destination would inform how fasting is effective toward that goal.
I remember listening to a CD by Fr. Thomas Hopko, in which he articulated the challenge to “become love” (my term) by speaking of the four degrees of love. I am, of course, paraphrasing his words in which follows. I understood him to say the following:
The Four Degrees of Love
1. Hate evil – over against
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12. 9-10)
2. Love good – embrace and holdfast
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12.9-10)
3. Mourn for your sin as your own and the sin of the other as if it were your own – identify through empathy
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5.4)
4.Be willing to die for the sake of the sin of the other as your own – pour out/share life
“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5.14-15, 21)
This is Christ Jesus. This is the revelation of the heart of God – of God in His entirety – LOVE… Our desire is for the love of God to not only be our goal but to actually become that which we desire.
“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Corinthians 5.14-15)
“For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
The work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (but certainly not begun or ended there for it is an eternal work) and lived out in ordinary time, places, and people, is to manifest the fullness of the love of God the Father, in Christ Jesus, in and through us. It would, therefore, be reasonable to say that we would do well to practice fasting in a “mindful” way or, to quote Jesus, “in remembrance” of Him into whose likeness we desire the discipline to transform us.
The first way in which fasting increases love is by exhorting us to engage in it with a right intent. Of course, that intent is mixed in the beginning. But, we start where we are and offer what we have to offer. Even the intention to have a right intention in practicing the disciplines is a right beginning place. We are exhorted to begin as the publican did in the temple. He started with his meager, but honest, intention. But note, he started ! ! I believe Jesus really loved and honored this publican. “O, Lord, help me to imitate the publican in this way.”
In addition to right intention is interrelatedness. We do not engage in the discipline of fasting in isolation. The disciplines belong together. This discipline works best when practiced in conjunction with other disciplines. What is more, the disciplines are designed to be practiced in community. We journey together toward the full stature of Christ Jesus in our life not just my life.
Fasting addresses our carnal desires or sinful inclinations of the body and mind – passions in Orthodox parlance – which are opposed to God. See Galatians 5 and Ephesians 2. The addressing of them is at least twofold. First, fasting exposes what is hidden. We cannot address what we do not know. Second, it actively opposes the operation of the passions. We build, to put it bluntly, a new set of habits that sink deeper and deeper and go beyond the habitual. They become a new way of life.
Fasting dethrones the exalted “I” and re-enthrones God. This is a “whose in charge” issue. Fasting forces the issue so to speak. I am the creature not the Creator. Love increases as we deliberately bridle the seeking of our own will for the sake of seeking the will of God. We increase in love as we deliberately set our course toward the goal of trusting in the mysterious means of transformation God has set forth instead of the one that seems reasonable and easily measured by the exalted “I.”
Fasting is painful physically and spiritually. It is sacrificial. It will inevitably frustrate us, hook into our secret resentments, love of comfort, etc. As C.S. Lewis said in one of his letters, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Fasting, then, plumbs the depths of the love of Christ that is already being expressed in our life. Where is the boundary within us between our public commitment to love and our secret love of sin and service to it ? ! There are some “false bottoms” and boundaries where we didn’t think there were boundaries in our life. Fasting plumbs the depths for the true bottom (the real edge), finds it, and reveals it to us. The invitation is then issued to break through the false bottom or boundary and deepen/broaden our Christ’s love in our life. We can, by the grace of God, press through (persevere to the end), standing firm, turning neither to the left or the right and save our souls.
Fasting, by developing a new way of life, teaches us the ways of God and alerts/sensitizes us to them within us and around us. A fasting/feasting lifestyle that is in harmony with the rhythms of the life of Christ Jesus helps us get ahead of sin. I can see the strategies and workings of the enemy and be more prepared to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in resisting the devil. Kind of like getting ahead of the curve.
Fasting is like weight lifting. Fasting reminds us that we are weak. But, that is not enough. So we are weak. So we should just quit, right?? No. When we are weak He is strong. Fasting is intended to encourage us not depress us. God reminds us of our weakness so we can be strong! It releases not our strength but the strength (muscle) of the Holy Spirit. What we develop is the muscle of effective cooperation as we embrace our weakness.
Fasting creates space, physically and spiritually. Real space. Spaciousness is Christ-like. Jesus had infinite space for others. Indeed, He had enough space to contain the whole universe in His heart in a personal manner. I believe that fasting creates and enlarges the space in our life for the creation and especially other people. The church fathers speak of the “enlargement of the heart” as the fruit of the spiritual disciplines when practiced with increasing humility and a right heart. Our hearts are, if they need ongoing transformation, in some way hardened, rigid, and inflexible. This is a heart governed under the domination of the law. The heart of God is a heart of grace. Not over against the law, but beyond the law in the sense of fulfillment. Our hearts are intended to be supple, flexible, stretchable, and exhibit a graceful elasticity. Responsive to the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit. This is the graceful heart, full of compassion, mercy, and patience – in short the fruit of the Spirit in all His fullness. By fasting and all other disciplines in conjunction with it, our hearts are broken open and drained of sin. They are made supple and all the rest. They are filled with the love of God that contains all persons and the whole creation. They become, mysteriously the one and the same heart of God – a Divine/human heart.
St. Benedict knew this. He says, in the Prologue of his Rule: “We are therefore now about to institute a school of the service of God; in which we hope nothing will be ordained rigorous or burdensome. But if in some things we proceed with a little severity, sound reason so advising, for the amendment of vices or preserving of charity; do not straightway for fear thereof, flee from the way of salvation which is always strait and difficult in the beginning. But in process of time and growth of faith, when the heart has once been enlarged, the way of God’s commandments is run with unspeakable sweetness of love; so that, never departing from His teaching, but persevering in the Monastery in His doctrine until death, we share now by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve afterwards to be partakers of His kingdom.”
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me … The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51.10, 17)
As the clean, grace-filled heart continues to be created and expands, we realize the love of God for us. “Thou art my beloved…” We realize what “all things come of Thee” really means. All good and perfect gifts come from God. All life and all things become gift. Gratitude blossoms on the far side of our perseverance through resentment and frustration with the discipline, God, ourselves, and others.
Fasting, as it participates in bringing the rhythms of my life in sync. with the rhythms and content of the life of Christ Jesus, changes my vision and priorities. We begin to see the other person and circumstances in a way that is more like how Christ Jesus sees them. In turn, as we do, we find that mysteriously (and slowly) we are developing a desire to see people and circumstances in just that way. We begin to enjoy the different way of seeing. And why is this the case? In time, the new way of seeing we enjoy turns into a behavior. We begin to actually do not just think or feel or passively intend.
And how can we do what we could not do before? Well, the capacity has been developed to be available when the desire for the utmost and highest good (the will of God) that has developed turns into a desire to act. And, because of all the other lessons we have been learning and the other changes that have been occurring as a result of fasting, the love of Christ Jesus, which is now our love, is actually released into the world for the life of the world and the glory of God.
Fasting sets us free. Free to really choose what we were created by God to not only desire but with which to unite ourselves and practice. St. Raphael Arnaiz Baron puts it this way: “Where, then, is true freedom? It is in the heart of one who loves nothing more than God. It is in the heart of one who is attached neither to spirit nor to matter, but only to God. It is in that soul which is not subject to the “I” of egoism, which soars above its own thoughts, feelings, suffering and enjoyment. Freedom resides in the soul whose one reason for existence is God, whose life is God and nothing else but God. The human spirit is small, impoverished, subject to a thousand changes of mood, ups and downs, depressions, disillusionments, etc., and the body to so much weakness. Freedom, then, is in God, and the soul which truly, in soaring above everything, makes her abode in him, can say that she enjoys freedom to the extent that is possible for one still in the world to do so.” The bending of the exalted “I” with all of its “yes but” statements. Baron speaks of the freedom to love that results from pressing/persevering through the transformative warfare between “I will” and “Thy will,” here. It is deeply instructive and inspiring.
All of this is, of course, under the governance of the Holy Spirit. It is not programmatic but relational. It is not linear and mechanical but more holistic and organic. It is a matter of trust. Fasting is always spoken of by the great elders as being practiced in the context of a living trust in God. Love increases as the result of practical trust in the one who points the way, provides for our needs on the way, and accompanies us on the way. The increase of love is, ultimately, the fruit of our “yes” to the question, “Do you trust me enough to just do what I say in the confidence that it will result in an increase in love no matter what; or is your trust really in all the reasonable ways of accounting for the increase of love instead of Me?” Learning how to trust in the word (invitation-promise-mandate) that issues forth from the mouth of the Son, and continue to REALLY trust no matter what things look like or how they seem or how they turn out, is what causes the increase in love. For, in as much as we do, we will find love flowing forth as a stream of living water from deep within.
How does fasting operate to increase love in YOUR life ? !