The Goal of Fasting (or any other spiritual discipline)

“Why fast?”

Those of us who attended an worship over the last several Sundays and/or an Ash Wednesday service this past week, probably heard this question in some form or another, “Why fast during Lent?” The preacher/homilist probably attempted to make certain you understood the real point of fasting. At least I hope they did ! !

And what is that reason? The defeat of sin and establishment of true righteousness. Being more completely conformed to the likeness of Christ Jesus in all areas of our life.

Duh ! ! That sounds obvious enough.

Nonetheless you and I have, doubtlessly, had conversations with people whose teeth are set on edge by any talk of formal or “institutional” practices of spiritual discipline like fasting, almsgiving, and more intense prayer and scripture reading. Why? Because the lives of the people and church they hear that exhortation from and encountered did not reflect a lessening of sin and increase of righteousness. And, as a result they ran as far as possible away from any such disciplines and the church that sponsored them.

How can I blame them ? ! I can’t… The people they saw practicing these disciplines were not showing any signs of being any less mean and rotten. What they did on Sunday had nothing to do with how they lived their life Monday-Friday. Jesus had some harsh words to say about the very same behavior (see Matthew 6.1-24). But “before” He said those words, our Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah and other prophets, saying the very same thing. Today and tomorrow we read Isaiah 58. Here it is in total just because:

Isaiah 58
[1] “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
[2] Yet they seek me daily,
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
[3] `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.
[4] Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
[5] Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
[6] “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
[7] 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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
[8] 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 be your rear guard.
[9] Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
[10] if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
[11] And the LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters fail not.
[12] And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
[13] “If you turn back your foot from the sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
[14] then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

What am I to make of this? Well, first off, any exhortation to practice spiritual disciplines without taking the time to instruct the hearer about the real point of the discipline and its connection with real transformation is a waste of time and doing more harm than good. Spiritual disciplines are not about proving something to God. It is about the consummation of practical union with Christ Jesus, the defeat and abolition of sin and death in and around our life, and the freedom of Christ Jesus to make His appeal through us to those who remain alienated from God.

Here are some quotes from the Church Fathers, elders, and the worship heritage of the Church that reiterates this as the goal of our Lenten disciplines:

“I know a man who kept no long strict fasts, no vigils, did not sleep on bare earth, imposed on himself no other specially arduous tasks; but, recollecting in memory his sins, understood his worthlessness and, having judged himself, became humble – and for this alone the most compassionate Lord saved him; as the divine David says: ‘The Lord is near to them that are of a broken heart; and saves such as be of a contrite spirit’ (Ps. 34:18). In short, he trusted the words of the Lord and for his faith the Lord received him.” St. Simeon the New Theologian

“Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the [increasing] acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.” St. Seraphim of Sarov

“Fasting and vigils, prayer and psalmody, acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good, but when performed for the sake of self-esteem they are not good.  In everything that we do, God searches out our purpose to see whether we do it for Him or for some other motive.” St. Maximos the Confessor

“Going through the fast does not consist in merely going through the time, but in going through it with amendment of manners (behavior and motive).  Let us consider this; whether we have become more diligent; whether we have corrected any of our defects; whether we have washed away our sins?” St. John Chrysostom

“True fasting lies is rejecting evil, holding one’s tongue, suppressing one’s hatred, and banishing one’s lust, evil words, lying, and betrayal of vows.” St. Basil the Great

“While fasting physically, brethren, Let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity. Let us tear up every unrighteous bond. Let us distribute bread to the hungry. And welcome into our homes Those who have no roof over their head, So that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.” From The Lenten Triodion, Wednesday of the first week of Great Lent

“Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.” St John Cassian

“While fasting physically, brethren, Let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity; Let us tear up every unrighteous bond; Let us distribute bread to the hungry, And welcome into our homes those who have no roof over their heads. So that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God!” The Lenten Triodion, Wednesday of the first week of Great Lent

“’This fasting,’ saith he, ‘if the commandments of the Lord are kept, is very good. This, then, is the way that thou shalt keep the fast. First of all, keep thyself from every evil word and every evil device, and purify thy heart from all the vanities of this world. If thou keep these things, thy fast shall be perfect for thee. And thus shalt thou do. Having fulfilled what is written, on that day on which thou fastest, thou shalt taste nothing but bread and water; and from my meals which thou wouldest have eaten, thou shalt reckon up the amount of that day’s expenditure, which thou wouldest have incurred, and shalt give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to one in want, and so shalt thou humble thy soul, that he that received from thy humiliation may satisfy his own soul, and may pray for thee to the Lord. If then thou shalt so accomplish this fast, as I have commanded thee, thy sacrifice shall be acceptable in the sight of God, and this fasting shall be recorded; and the service so performed is beautiful and joyous, and acceptable to the Lord.’” The Shepherd of Hermas

“Fasting is acceptable to God when abstention from food is accompanied by refraining from sins, from envy, from hatred, from calumny, from vainglory, from wordiness, from other evils. He who is fasting the true fast `that is agreeable’ to God ought to shun all these things with all his strength and zeal, and remain impregnable and unshakeable against all the attacks of the Evil one that are planned from that quarter. On the other hand, he who practices abstention from food, but does not keep self-control in the face of the aforesaid passions, is like unto one who lays down splendid foundations for a house, yet takes serpents and scorpions and vipers as fellow-dwellers therein.” St. Photios the Great

“Let us present a good fast, well-pleasing to the Lord! A true fast is alienation from the evil one; The holding of one’s tongue, the laying aside of all anger, The removal of all sensuality, Of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing. The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing.” The Lenten Triodion, Tuesday of the first week of Lent

“Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being saved must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men.  Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.” St. John Chrysostom

Now you might be saying to yourself, “Father Thomas is saying I should be perfect when Pascha arrives.” Or “Unless I have some identifiable proof of my progress then I have failed and am the enemy of the Gospel.” God forbid that you this should be your conclusion. That kind of conclusion is the very misinterpretation of the Holy Tradition that is the point of this blog post. Push beyond the “this world” either or type conclusion to embrace another conclusion. This is what I believe St. Paul is asking the believers to do. What I do mean can be summed up by quoting St. Paul:

Philippians 3
[1] Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me, and is safe for you.
[2] Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
[3] For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.
[4] Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:
[5] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee,
[6] as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.
[7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
[8] Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ
[9] and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;
[10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
[11] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
[13] Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
[14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
[15] Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you.
[16] Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
[17] Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.
[18] For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
[19] Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
[20] But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,
[21] who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Ephesians 4
[1] I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
[2] with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love,
[3] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
[11] And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
[12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
[13] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;
[14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.
[15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
[16] from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.
[17] Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds;
[18] they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart;
[19] they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness.
[20] You did not so learn Christ! —
[21] assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.
[22] Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts,
[23] and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
[24] and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
[25] Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
[26] Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,
[27] and give no opportunity to the devil.
[28] Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.
[29] Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.
[30] And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
[31] Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice,
[32] and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Let us heed the exhortation of our Lord through Isaiah, St. Paul, the Church Fathers and elders, and worship heritage that is our dearest treasure. Let us struggle together with understanding and directionality, not as uninformed wanderers whose life serves to hinder the progress of the Gospel in our own life and, perhaps, the life of others. Let us embrace the disciplines not with a self-centered desire to “prove something” to ourselves or the world but a humble and radical trust in the faithfulness and power of God to do all things that are good and perfect in our life as we also radically cooperate with Him. Let us cleave not only to Him with this intentionality, but to our brothers and sisters of the faith. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” (Heb. 10.23-24) Let us testify with our behavior not just our words that Christ Jesus is Lord and is able to transform/save those who commend their entire life into His hands on a daily basis. Let this be our Lenten prayer for one another.

Fr. Thomas

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