Spiritual Articles

Benefits and Importance of Fasting

pope shenouda iii

Fasting is one of the most important spiritual means. But why?

First of all, because it helps us keep self-control.

As the one fasting abstains from eating and drinking generally for a period of time, he stops himself from eating whatever relates to animal fat.  And so he learns restraint. In the process of restraining from food and drink, he will also restrain himself from committing sins.

God put this element of restrain from the beginning when He asked Adam and Eve to abstain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Here, He put the principle of self-control from the beginning of the history of humanity, to make us fully realize that freedom does not mean lack of restrain. Although God was very generous with Adam and Eve and gave them permission to eat from “every tree of the garden”, but He put a rule, which was to refrain from eating from a particular tree (Gen 2:16,17) and (Gen 3:3).

Maybe we fully realize here the seriousness of the phrase that King Solomon said, expressing his unrestrained pleasure:  “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them”  (Eccles 2:10).     So eventually he lost his wisdom and sinned.  “His heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David”  (1 Kings 11:4). And many desires caused him to stumble...

Fasting is also an evidence of being elevated above the level of the body.
In it, we do not give the body all that it asks or desires of food.  By so doing, we are elevated above bodily desires.  We are even being elevated above materialism in general.  And so we give the spirit a chance to take its opportunity, remembering the Lord’s saying:  “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life” (Jn 6:27).      And theApostle’s saying:  “ For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” (Rom 8:6).

The spirit becomes stronger during fasting. 
During fasting, our prayers are also deeper and our contemplations are deeper.  Our relationship with God becomes stronger, even our hymns also. There is a big difference between recording one of the Pascha hymns during the Passion Week and recording the same hymn at a non-fasting period.  The effect of fasting on the spirit is not restricted to Christians only but the Hindus, the Yogies and the Buddhists find spiritual strength in exercises of fasting and asceticism.  Their spirits become more pure...

Fasting then is not of benefit only to fight against the negatives but it also benefits positively in strengthening the spirit.
Therefore we find that most of the spiritual occasions are preceded by fasting.

The church sacraments for example, such as Baptism, Myron (Chrism), Holy Communion and Priesthood have to be preceded by fasting.  Receiving the blessing of feasts is preceded by fasting.  We fast for many long weeks before Christmas and Easter, before the Feast of the Apostles, the Feast of the Virgin Mary and for the Epiphany we fast the day before (the Baramoun).

How beautiful is the saying in the Acts of the Apostles, (before the laying on of hands on Barnabas and Saul): “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said;  Now separate for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.  Then having fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away”  (Acts 13:2,3).

Among the most beautiful words also said about the spiritual effect of fasting is: The relationship between fasting and casting out evil spirits:
The Lord talked about this in the miracle of casting out a stubborn demon, the thing that His Disciples failed to do...  The Lord then said: “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21)...  Because the prayer of the one who is fasting has its spirituality and its effect, the one who is fasting is closer to God and stronger than the demons.

Fasting was used by the saints during times of tribulations.
We have a very clear example of that in the fasting of Esther and all the Jews when they were confronted by Haman’s conspiracy (Esther 4:16), and the Lord’s response was quick and amazing.  We also hear about the fasting of Nehemiah when he heard the news that: “The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down and its gates are burned with fire” (Neh 1:3,4). The book of Nehemiah also tells about the Lord’s response and how it was quick and amazing... The Bible also tells us about how Ezra and Hobak fasted and the effect it had on cleansing and purifying the people.  The Bible also tells us about the fasting of the Prophet Daniel and its effect (Dan 9:3,21) and (Dan 10:3,12).

Fasting also had its effect in the field of repentance...
The people of Ninevah repented.  Their repentance was not only by turning from the life of evil, but it was mixed with great fasting an asceticism of both the king and all the people.  God accepted their fasting and their repentance and forgave them their sins (Jon 3).

The most impressive saying about the mixture of repentance with fasting is what the divine inspiration said in the book of the Prophet Joel: “Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12) and the Prophet David explains the depth of his fasting and says: “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps 35:13), and “I wept and chastened my soul with fasting”  (Ps 69:10).

And many of the prayers of the fathers and the prophets, asking for forgiveness, were accompanied by fasting such as the prayers of Daniel and Ezra, asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.

Fasting also has its relation to the service.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the most outstanding model of that, as He started His service by fasting for forty days.  And following His steps, so do all the fathers the bishops and the newly ordained priests, they start their ministerial service by fasting...  The saintly Apostles themselves started their service also by fasting.  In them it was confirmed what the Lord said: “When the bridegroom will be taken away from them, then they will fast”  (Mk 2:20).

Fasting not only took place at the beginning of the service of our fathers the apostles, but it also took place during their service: “...In fastings often” (2 Cor 11:27). St Paul also says: “But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God...  In labours, in sleeplessness, in fastings...” (2 Cor 6:4,5).

Have you tried, my brother, in your life to fast for the service and for solving problems in general?

 

THE ACCEPTABLE SPIRITUAL FASTING:

But maybe some would ask the Lord, as it happened at the time of Isaiah the Prophet: “Why have we fasted and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls and You take no notice?” (Is 58:3).  And the Lord would reply as He did to those and say to them: “Is it a fast that I have chosen?” (Is 58:5).

You must know, my brother, that not every fasting is acceptable before God.  The Pharisee who used to fast twice a week, was not justified like the tax collector (Lk 18:12,14).     The same with fasting that does not have repentance. Likewise the fasting of the sinners at the time of Jeremiah the Prophet, about whom the Lord said: “When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering, I will not accept them”       (Jer 14:11,12). The same with the fasting of the hypocrites, who want to appear to men to be fasting (Mt 6:16-18).

Do not say then: I fasted but did not benefit spiritually!!

If this happens, may be your fasting was not done in a spiritual way or atmosphere. Or maybe you fast but at the same time live in sin!!  Then we have to learn how to fast?  And what is the true meaning of fasting?  And how do we benefit spiritually from it?

Many are concerned about the formalities of fasting, or they understand it as just eating vegetarian food and they do not care about the spiritual side during fasting!!  I say to those: the definition of fasting with regard to the body is abstaining from food for a certain period of time, followed by food that is free from animal fat.

Do you practise this abstinence from food and drink? And do you reach a stage of hunger and you endure it?

This is the first exercise, I mean enduring hunger...  It was said about the fasting of the Lord Jesus Christ that: “He was hungry” (Mt 4:2) and (Lk 4:2).  And St Paul the Apostle said about his fasting with his fellow apostles: “In hunger and thirst, in fastings often” (2 Cor 11:27).  And about the fasting of St Peter the Apostle, it was said:“Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat”  (Acts 10:10).    So, do you experience hunger in your fasting?

When you become hungry, you feel your weakness so you do not show off your strength but rely on God’s strength to support you.  And when you become hungry and endure hunger, you acquire the virtue of endurance and self-control.  Therefore do not eat whenever you feel hungry during fasting but persevere and endure.  Take the blessing of feeling hungry, persevering and enduring it.  Also when you experience hunger, you will feel the pain of the poor who have nothing to eat, so you will be sympathetic towards them and give unto them...  This is what is meant by abstaining for a period of time during fasting.

Another advice is to abstain from whatever you desire...

Remember the saying of the Prophet Daniel about his fasting: “I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth” (Dan 10:3)...  I say that because many eat a lot of desirable vegetarian food and enjoy it.  Therefore, they do not really feel that they are fasting, and then they do not benefit from their fasting, especially if there was a mother or a wife who is expert in cooking vegetarian food and makes it more appetizing than ordinary food.

Therefore, place before yourself two observations during your fast: the first is that you do not ask for specific types of food that you enjoy.  The second is that if desirable food is placed before you, do not satisfy your desire and eat from it. Or else take a small amount and leave the rest and control yourself.  Or mix the desirable with the undesirable, so that the desirable will not taste that good.

Would that you advance in your fasting till you reach, not only the hunger of the body, but the ascetic body.

In this way, your body renounces all the enjoyment offered by food.  The element of abstaining comes first.  But when you train yourself and get used to it, then it would not be a great effort to stop yourself, because by that time, you would have renounced what you used to long for.  This ability to restrain yourself from food and drink will grow and develop in you until you renounce many other pleasures, such as those of the senses, and the various desires of the body...  At that time, your spiritual level will be elevated...

The element of restrain comes into many fields.

As you train to restrain yourself from eating and drinking, you will gradually restrain your tongue from bad talk and from any talk that is not constructive.  You also restrain your mind from vain and wrong thoughts.

You restrain your heart from all sinful feelings, all desires and impure emotions.  And so you will progress from the fasting of the mouth to the fasting of the tongue, the fasting of the thoughts, and the fasting of the heart.

Not only would your body be fasting, but your soul also...

Fasting becomes a mere expression of the inner purity that you have reached and a spiritual period that you have lived...  The more you practise, the more you will be used to it and its virtues for you will become a way of life.  I mean that what you spiritually gain during fasting, you do not lose when fasting is over, but it continues with you.  It is true that your food has changed by the end of fasting, but the virtues that you acquired during fasting would not change...

Here you differentiate between breaking fast and lack of restraint.

Many control themselves during the fast, but when it is over and it is feast time, they lose all that they acquired, thinking that breaking a fast means loss of restraint and self control!!  Therefore, the one who takes fasting as one of the spiritual means, keeps in his heart, his soul and his will all that he acquired during the fast, and the benefit continues with him.  If fasting helped him to get rid of a bad habit or a specific habit, he does not go back to it even after he breaks his fast.

 

MIXING FASTING WITH VIRTUES:

For one to benefit from fasting and to enter into the spirituality of fasting for his body as well as his soul, one has to mix his fasting with specific virtues that suit fasting and agree with him.

+  Fasting has to be accompanied by prayer.  Why?  Because when we fast, it is not only to discipline the body and bring it into subjection (1 Cor 9:27), but it is also to give the spirit a chance to be nourished by all the spiritual nutrition that is good for it: prayer, spiritual readings, contemplation and love for God.  In the Fraction of the Holy Lent, during Mass, we repeat the phrase: “With fasting and prayer...”  And for sure, the spirit that has received its nutrition, would be able to sustain the body during its fasting so it would not get tired.  We notice that during the Passion Week, we never feel the burden of fasting because during this period, the spirit is being fed by readings, hymns and holy memories. And so we can say about the spiritual fasting:

The fasting of the body is a chance to nourish the spirit.

And the fasting that is accompanied by God’s fellowship turns into a spiritual enjoyment so that the one who is fasting would tire if he stops his fasting.  This is what used to happen to the fathers who lived in solitude and to the monks, to whom fasting became a spiritual nourishment that made their hearts rejoice and brought them closer to God.

+ Fasting also has to be linked to repentance.

Because what is important in spirituality is the pure heart and not just the hungry body.  It also makes our fasting acceptable to God and we feel that we benefit from it.

And so says the divine inspiration in the Book of Joel: “Consecrate a fast, call asacred assembly” (Joel 2:15). Fasting then is a holy period.  And how could it be holy without repentance?!  And what we acquire from feelings of repentance during fasting should remain with us.

+  Fasting is also accompanied by humility before God.

And so the Prophet David said: “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps 35:13). And in the fasting of the people of Ninevah, they put on sack cloth and sat in ashes (Jon 3).  And as the body is crushed by fasting, so the spirit should be crushed.  Therefore, fasting is accompanied by prostrations.  It is not enough for your body to bend, but also for your spirit to bend.  As the Prophet David said: “My soul clings to the dust” (Ps 119:25).   He did not only say: “My head clings to the dust” ...

In this humility, the soul asks for God’s mercy, for itself and for others. The soul also confesses its sins and asks for forgiveness.  And as the Prophet Joel said: “... Rend your heart, and not your garment;  Return to the Lord your God”  (Joel 2:13).

+ Fasting is also accompanied by almsgiving.

The one who asks for God’s mercy during fasting must have mercy on others and give alms.  How beautiful is the Lord’s saying about this in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:  “Is this not the fast that I have chosen:  To loose the bonds of wickedness....  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;  when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Is 58:6,7).

The topic of fasting and its spirituality is long.

If you want more details, you can read a book I published for you under the title “Spirituality of Fasting.”  May God grant us all a holy fast that brings our spirits closer to Him, that we may feel the enjoyment of fasting.

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"The conscience that satisfies God humbly & completes the good workshis inner person will enlighten with grace as the sun when it shines." - St. Isaac the Syrian

 

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