“Many Christians, unaware of the great value of fasting, either keep the fast with difficulty or reject it altogether. We should not be afraid to fast but embrace it with joy.” (St. John Chrysostom)
Fasting is so much more then abstaining from certain foods. Christ reminds us in the Gospels it is more important to pay attention to what comes out of our mouths then what goes into them (Matthew 15:11). St. Basil defines true fasting as “…refraining from evil, temperance of tongue, suppression of anger, and excision of lust, evil speaking, lying, and oath breaking.” Lent is so much more than simply fasting for a long time. It is a time of increased prayer, worship, and church attendance, and giving. Yet, it is possible to fast rigorously, go to church more frequently, pray daily, and give more during Great Lent and be no better off spiritually than the Pharisee who went to the temple to pray with the Publican (Luke 18:9-14).
I admit this may be a bit harsh and most of us are not as arrogant, self-absorbed, and self-satisfied as the Pharisee. However, we can be like him and do all the “right things” during Lent and still miss the point of it. Why is that? It has to do with how we frame our thinking. Do we think of Lent and fasting as what we must give up and requirements or rules we must follow; or do we understand it as a means for gaining increased spiritual growth and well-being. Seeing fasting as all about giving up rather than gaining is actually distorted thinking.
We learn early on in Scripture about how our thinking got distorted due to sin and that our first impulse is typically to run away from God or do opposite of what God would have us do even though is best for us. Fasting is about gaining through giving. We voluntarily give up so that we may gain. Instead of being focused on the giving up of certain foods, we should see it as a step in growing toward something wonderful. Like an athlete or an artist, we give up our time for leisure and voluntarily choose to work because we want to get better are our craft. We see the hard work and leisure activities we give up as worth it to attain a goal. Our goal as Orthodox Christians is to become more Christ-like. Fasting is a first step to gain control over ourselves us in this regard. Together with increased prayer and almsgiving, it all may feel like a forced effort at first, but that is normal. Many things feel forced at first until they start feeling more natural.
St. Seraphim of Sarov reminds us that “…fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit.” Christ sent us the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” (John 16:7) to help us know Him so that we may become like Him. Christ promises us great peace through the Helper (John 14:26- 27) and we know the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is, among other things, this peace. Fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Lent done with the right heart reorient our whole being to a heightened sense of God’s loving presence in our life through the Holy Spirit.
How do we know we are experiencing His presence? It is because we gain a greater sense of peace, joy, contentment – gifts to our spirit. We feel and experience these gifts in greater and greater measure. And who would not want those gifts in stress ridden world. Not that we should be seeking them instead of Christ. It is just understanding that fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Lent that help us become more Christ-like come with benefits. God loves us so as we become more like Him, we receive these loving gifts from Him. Lent and fasting serve as an annual reminder and opportunity to seek God with more fervor which we should do not just during Lent, but every day.
“But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:17-18)
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