A Short Primer on Fasting

by SDG

in Uncategorized

SDG here (not Jimmy) with some brief thoughts on fasting.

In recent decades, many American Evangelicals have rediscovered the practice of fasting long practiced in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In 1978 Richard J. Foster, a Protestant writer in the Quaker tradition, published Celebration of Discipline, a book on spiritual practices that introduced many Protestants to the ascetical and devotional heritage of the early monastic tradition, the mystical writings of John of the Cross, and other writers ranging from Brother Lawrence to Dostoyevski to Thomas Merton.

It was reading Foster as a young Evangelical that I first encountered the claim that fasting is a normative part of the Christian life: After all, Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount said to his followers "When you fast," not "if"; and in Mark 2 Jesus declared that while His disciples could not fast while He, the Bridegroom, was among them, in the days when the Bridegroom would be taken away, "then they will fast."

Later, as I learned more about the early Fathers, I discovered the Didache, one of the earliest extrabiblical Christian texts (possibly as early as 70 AD), which records that Christians in the apostolic Church fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays (in contradistinction to the practice of the "hypocrites," which was to fast Mondays and Thursdays).

Even so, for many Christians, fasting continues to be a somewhat exotic or unfamiliar practice, perhaps carrying a suspicious whiff of works-righteousness or something of the sort. Why do we fast? How can we explain it to others?

What follows below the fold is my attempt, originally written for and posted in a non-Catholic Christian forum, to brief sum up what I understand to be the basics regarding the place of fasting in Christian spirituality as a form of penance and asceticism. Additional thoughts, insights, corrections and comments are welcome.

As a foundation of Christian ascesis, fasting is a form of self-denial, of sacrifice. What differentiates sacrifice from the self-discipline of the moral life is this: In the moral life we forgo temptations or self-indulgences that are actually wrong or bad for us, but in the sacrifice and self-denial of Christian ascesis we voluntarily give up what is good in itself, just as the Israelites made offerings to God of the best from their flock.

By willingness to give up for God what is good as well as what is bad, we affirm and practice attachment to God and detachment from created things, even created things that are lawful in themselves. Like soldiers training for war, we practice doing without and denying ourselves, in part to strengthen our capacity to choose to do without and deny ourselves when it counts. Like sacrifice in the Old Testament, self-denial is also a form of penance before God, of expressing sorrow for sin and offering something to God in token of contrition, suffering in union with the sufferings of Christ (cf. Rom 8:17).

Christian ascesis takes for granted that the human creature is damaged goods out of the box, not conforming to original manufacturer specs, and that our failures and sins in this world further knock us out of whack. Ascesis is part of an apprenticeship in self-mastery, and we need to begin by realizing that mastery of ourselves is not the default.

We do not start off automatically in charge of ourselves and able to direct our feet on the path we wish. We are a spoiled brat, a recalcitrant donkey. We need whipping into shape. We need boot camp. We need to be made uncomfortable, to be pushed where we don’t want to go. We need to acquire stick-to-it-iveness, to strengthen our weakened will and develop the resolve to finish what we have started.

Our appetites are inflamed and disordered; our volition is weak and vacillating; our intellect is darkened and forgetful. This sorry condition is known in the Christian anthropology of the West as concupiscence.

To follow Christ, it is not enough to start where we are, swear off our bad habits, and merely set about avoiding sin and actively offending God. We are flabby, soft, wheezing, lazy. Like a couch potato signing up at the gym, we have fine intentions for a week or two, but easily fall off the wagon, as unprepared for battle as ever we were.

There is also a mystical dimension to fasting. By turning away from the needs of our human organism, we become more aware that we are more than organisms. Just as we listen more attentively when we close our eyes, so when we put aside food we become more aware of spiritual things.

St. Paul speaks of those whose god is their belly. Even when your belly is not your god, turning away from your belly can open your eyes and ears to God in a new way. Although Christian anthropology teaches no Cartesian dualism between spirit and flesh, in this mortal world separation from the body stands between us and union with God, and fasting is a form of preparation or practicing for death, of putting aside the flesh.

Besides fasting from food, other important forms of Christian ascesis include abstention from sleep (called "watching") and from sex (especially, I think, in the Eastern tradition), as well as the special calling of celibacy.

Christian ascesis is inseparable from prayer. Just doing without food is only dieting, and just doing without sleep is only being a workaholic.

Finally, in addition to fasting and prayer, Christian tradition names almsgiving as a third indispensable form of penance (CCC 1434).

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{ 34 comments }

Esau September 24, 2007 at 10:30 am

Great post, Jimmy!

SDG September 24, 2007 at 10:32 am

Are you being funny, Esau? :-)
- Not Jimmy

bill912 September 24, 2007 at 10:46 am

“Are you being funny, Esau?”
That’s telling him, Tim!

Tim J. September 24, 2007 at 10:46 am

Thanks, SDG. A very lucid, brief summary. It’s the kind of thing that will be helpful to direct my evangelical friends and family members to.
I hadn’t thought about going without sleep as a form of fast for some time. I have been aware that it is a spiritual discipline and that it was practiced by our Lord, but I just had not considered doing it myself for quite a while. I think it bears another look.
I used to do adoration from midnight to one o’clock, but spent a lot of my time just fighting sleep. I was also often a bit of a wreck the next day.

Esau September 24, 2007 at 10:56 am

Are you being funny, Esau? :-)
Actually, it was an ‘inside’ joke from several of past posts Tim J. used to do where, for some reason or another, even when Tim would state (as you have) ‘Tim J. here — not Jimmy’; folks would STILL call him Jimmy on the thread!
Cracked me up!

SDG September 24, 2007 at 11:00 am

That’s what I thought, which is why I asked… but I wasn’t sure. :-)
In any case, I appreciate the opportunity to clarify the author issue yet again!

Esau September 24, 2007 at 11:11 am

No problem, Bill!

Barbara September 24, 2007 at 11:58 am

Great post Steve!
While Paul doesn’t specifically mention fasting per se, in 1 Cor 9:27, he gives it as a remedy for remaining faithful: “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others, in the end, I myself be disqualified”.
PS. There’s one fast I would never copy: Daniel’s fast of only eating vegetables! :-p (cf. Dan. 1:12)

John E September 24, 2007 at 12:00 pm

“By willingness to give up for God what is good as well as what is bad, we affirm and practice attachment to God and detachment from created things, even created things that are lawful in themselves.”
Spiritual weight-lifting to strengthen the will. If we give up food and fail, no big deal. If we give up porn and fail, we’re in a grave situation. Fasting is a safe way to strengthen the will without actually putting ourselves in a dangerous situation, so that if we ever do get into such a situation we have been strengthened to resist falling into temptation. Obviously it helps against venial sins as well. If you are able to complete the fast even if it’s no big deal if you fail, then you will be better able to resist committing venial sins, even if it’s “no big deal” if you don’t resist the temptation.

Memphis Aggie September 24, 2007 at 12:03 pm

Nice summary John

Kasia September 24, 2007 at 12:16 pm

I’m really glad this was posted today. I went to Confession on Saturday, and I was trying to ask my confessor how I could improve in self-denial – because, as I put it, if one of the seven deadly sins sends me to Hell it’ll be gluttony for sure – and I had the distinct impression that he’d misunderstood me, because he started giving me general diet and nutrition advice. (I’m a bit overweight.) I was so embarrassed, I didn’t even have the presence of mind to correct him! (Though maybe he was just trying to tell me to start by taking better care of myself, and *then* work on fasting.)
In any event, this post was perfectly timed for me. Thanks! :-)

Margaret September 24, 2007 at 12:58 pm

Wow, SDG– that was so clear. Thank you so much for posting this. It’s often difficult for me (and many other Catholics, especially the cradle variety) to explain to others what we have always taken for granted because it’s just part of the “wallpaper” that makes up Christian life… :-)

Steve aka Xtian September 24, 2007 at 1:07 pm

Fasting is found in the OT & NT but what I think is important is whether or not God has called a person individually to fast or not.
If we indeed have a relationship with God, and He tells us to fast, then by all means do it. What I have a problem with are people/churches who tell their members when & what to fast from/to. What if God needs you to be “beefed up” and ready for battle and you decide to fast. In effect your making yourself “battle ineffective”.
The problem with following the lifestyle of what God told another person to do, is that your not denying yourself and following HIM (Jesus), but that your trying to conform to the image of what God wants that other person to be. If its true we all have different gifts/giftings when they are required (think of dials instead of an “on/off” switch), then fasting cause someone else is, might not improve your relationship with God. Not saying its worthless, but if we followed what God says, its more effective.
Of course it seems that fasting, along with leading a life of repentance and dying to self is low on the “to do” list of most christians today (at least the ones in america). Good stuff tho.
Keep seeking God, listening & obeying Him.
Love ya all,
Steve

Memphis Aggie September 24, 2007 at 1:12 pm

I think the larger point about getting self control through self denial is for everyone. Food is just one possible are of practice. I’ve been seeing more and more on this topic lately – it’s got me thinking.
Thanks SDG

John E September 24, 2007 at 1:31 pm

Steve aka Xtian,
For Catholics, who believe in the authority given to the the Magisterium of the Church by Christ for the service of Christ, when the Church says to fast on certain days from certain things, that IS the call of which you referred. Further, I think it’s important not only to have an individual relationship with Christ, but a communal relationship as well. I think there is great potential for this with communal activities such as worship, prayer, and even fasting.

Tim J. September 24, 2007 at 1:47 pm

Right. If the Church has established certain days of fasting, then God IS calling you to fast on those days, at least.

Memphis Aggie September 24, 2007 at 1:50 pm

When I look at my waistline in the mirror change with age I think I’m called to fast by common sense as well.

Esau September 24, 2007 at 3:21 pm

Fasting is a safe way to strengthen the will without actually putting ourselves in a dangerous situation, so that if we ever do get into such a situation we have been strengthened to resist falling into temptation.
This bit from John E reminds me of the Gospel read at yesterday’s Mass (Gospel from Luke 16:1 – 13):
“The man who can be trusted in little things can be trusted in great; the man who is dishonest in little things will be dishonest in great.”

Monica September 24, 2007 at 3:55 pm

why do people keep knocking American Catholics? I know we are an opulant society, but are European Catholics any better? How about South American Catholics? Those I have been acquainted with have their own set of flaws, and don’t seem to be either better or worse than us.
I used to do more severe fasts, but stopped when I started having children. I was nearly always pregnant or nursing, never got quite back up to snuff after post partem depression and don’t think I could successfully fast now. So we stick to the meatless fridays, which is tricky enough. In addition there are several days/week where the picky eaters get to offer up my ‘wretched’ meal choices.
I did successfully combat the headaches with liquid chloryphyll which has other benefits that tylenol doesn’t.

Mary September 24, 2007 at 4:25 pm

I was trying to ask my confessor how I could improve in self-denial – because, as I put it, if one of the seven deadly sins sends me to Hell it’ll be gluttony for sure – and I had the distinct impression that he’d misunderstood me, because he started giving me general diet and nutrition advice.
Nutrition can be important when fasting. If you are eating one meal a day, you want it to be nutrition loaded.

Dr. Eric September 24, 2007 at 8:01 pm

Another tradition in the Early Church was the Black Fast. No food whatsoever until 3 pm, usually on Fridays. And it is still observed in the East by some from the end of Liturgy on Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday or even to the point of having no food at all!
It is now kept by Muslims and it is called Ramadan.
These kinds of radical fasts are only to be undertaken with the help of a Spiritual Father (Mother.)

Hartmeister September 24, 2007 at 11:42 pm

I really think that until Christians get as serious as Muslims about fasting that will continue to behind the spiritual eight ball with them. When we start fasting as serious during Lent as they do during Ramadan, when we pray as often daily as they do then we will see a radical change to people toward Christianity.

Jordan Potter September 25, 2007 at 12:21 am

Before I became a Catholic, I belonged to a sect that observed the Jewish festivals of Leviticus 23, including the 24-hour fast from all food and drink on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, which was just last Saturday). In that sect we were also encouraged to occasionally fast on other days of the year, especially in times of crisis and spiritual trial. So, when I became a Catholic and found that Catholics only fasted twice a year, and that Catholic fasts are extremely mild, I just had the impression that Catholics were, well, kind of wimpy in the ascesis department. I also found that the Friday penance was rarely, if ever observed (and by the way, I think Jimmy is incorrect that whether or not American Catholics do a Friday penance is purely volutary — but anyway Catholics are rarely, if ever, even mildly encouraged to consider a Friday penance). Well, it’s inconceivable that all the saints of the Church during the past 2,000 years could be wrong, so voluntary or not, my wife and I always do a Friday penance — at the minimum we abstain from meat, and for the past few months I’ve been choosing to abstain from all food on Fridays, just drinking water for 12 hours. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are fast days, so I fast on those days: no food, just water. But even that is a relaxation from my pre-Catholic days, when my fasts were never less than 24 hours, and always were no food and no drink (not even water). I did a 48-hour fast once (again, no food, no water), and man I had no idea how DEEEE-licious!!! toothpaste could taste until that second morning of the fast when I brushed my teeth. Wow did that dinner taste good that night!

Jordan Potter September 25, 2007 at 12:30 am

I just wanted to add that I actually appreciate the broader, more relaxed concept of fasting that the Catholic Church has. Before my conversion, I only knew one kind of fasting, and it was always a rigorous kind. (Those with health problems, and nursing mothers, were exempt, of course.) It has been good to learn that there are different ways to fast, from the milder forms to the more rigorous kinds I’m used to. It’s just that, since I’m used to rigorous fasting, I feel like I’m not giving God of the fruitfruits of my labor if I don’t engage in some tangible ascesis.

Jacque September 25, 2007 at 6:24 am

Thanks so much Tim for this post. It’s certinly a subject I needed to hear about. By the way this is my first post, although I have been an avid reader of this blog for more than a year.
Jordan Potter:
It sounds as if we both came from the same background. (I wonder if you were with the WWCOG.)
Anyhow, I became in full communion with the Church in 2005. I love reading these blogs, they give me much food for thought.
Jacque

Tim J. September 25, 2007 at 6:30 am

Why fight it, SDG?
You’re welcome, Jacque.

Jacque September 25, 2007 at 7:47 am

Okay I’m an idiot! I’ve known it all along…and now you do too.
Thanks SDG… and Tim …

Esau September 25, 2007 at 9:09 am

Thanks so much Tim for this post.
I agree — this is one of the best post TIM J has done yet!
Thanks Jimmy!

Mary September 25, 2007 at 9:45 am

I really think that until Christians get as serious as Muslims about fasting that will continue to behind the spiritual eight ball with them. When we start fasting as serious during Lent as they do during Ramadan, when we pray as often daily as they do then we will see a radical change to people toward Christianity.
I note that Muslims often gain weight during Ramadan. Eating all your food at once is a good way to pack on the pounds.

another voice September 26, 2007 at 1:35 pm

Thank you so much for all the postings. I have never thought of fasting as something that would bring me closer to God. I love food, too much really, and fasting for me would be a sacrifice to say the least. But I will do it now after reading all the posts. Thank you again.

Steve aka Xtian October 14, 2007 at 9:12 am

I am wondering if a man directed fast is the way to go.
Are we not getting ahead of ourselves and putting us in God’s place (idolatry perhaps?), in saying we need to fast at certain times, from certain things, instead of seeking God and asking HIM when we should fast & what for?
What if God wants us “beefed up” and battle ready (since our battle is not against flesh & blood, but against spiritual forces), then fasting when an organization/church tells us to, makes us “battle ineffective”. IOW this scheduling of when to fast is putting God in a box and restricting Him and how He works in our lives to some degree. While we may get some benefit from a man directed fasting, if we do it per HIS command & direction, then its much more effective.
After all the bible says “in ALL your ways acknowledge Him & HE will direct your paths”; it also says “Today if you hear HIS voice, harden not your hearts”. Jesus said “my sheep hear my voice & follow ME” & “those that love ME obey my commands” & many others. Look at the numerous people in the bible (OT & NT) that heard HIM, they were the ones that had a dynamic walk with HIM (they knew God really well & it stemmed from a personal, two way communication). If religion is just intellectualizing a system of rules & doctrine, then there is no real certainty that what you believe is 100% correct. However if you hear, follow & obey Him, then you’re assured that your playing for the right team (as long as who your hearing is HIM God, & not the enemy).
For those who scoff at the idea of hearing Him today, there are only two teams, God & the enemy. Who do you think benefits the most by teaching that God doesnt speak to His children on a personal level today? Yep, the enemy.
If I was the enemy, it would be so much easier to deceive people not with an outright frontal assault, but with a more deceptive or covert operation that springs up amidst the camp of the friendly forces (God doesnt speak anymore, heal anymore, etc). After all the whole bible are accounts of God having a personal relationship with thousands of people. Most didnt want to hear Him, but even Jesus said that the way & gate to salvation was narrow & few would find it.
So I guess the questions are not should or shouldnt we fast, but rather…
Do you hear Him on a daily basis? and is He the one telling you to fast?
Love ya all,
Steve

SDG October 14, 2007 at 9:28 am

I am wondering if a man directed fast is the way to go.

Are we not getting ahead of ourselves and putting us in God’s place (idolatry perhaps?), in saying we need to fast at certain times, from certain things, instead of seeking God and asking HIM when we should fast & what for?

Why stop there? Why accept human direction in anything? Why should children accept direction from their parents (who are just human beings, isn’t that idolatry), instead of seeking God directly and asking HIM whether it’s time for them to go to bed?
The answer is that God has given children parents for their good and commanded them to honor their father and mother. And in the same way, it is Jesus who said “Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven” and “He who hears you hears me.”
When the Church tells me to fast, it IS Jesus who tells me to fast, for the Church is the fulness of Him who fills all in all.

What if God wants us “beefed up” and battle ready (since our battle is not against flesh & blood, but against spiritual forces), then fasting when an organization/church tells us to, makes us “battle ineffective”.

Riight. Because battle effectiveness means that instead of a chain of command and an army that is all on the same page, every soldier should ignore orders unless they come directly to him personally from the President.

For those who scoff at the idea of hearing Him today, there are only two teams, God & the enemy.

Saul of Tarsus thought exactly the same thing when he was persecuting the Church. What did Jesus say to him? Not “Why are you persecuting My Church?” Rather, “Why are you persecuting ME?”
To persecute the Church is to persecute Christ. To hear the Church is to hear Christ. To discourage men from hearing the Church is to discourage men from hearing Christ.
Whose side is aided by your present efforts?

If I was the enemy, it would be so much easier to deceive people not with an outright frontal assault, but with a more deceptive or covert operation that springs up amidst the camp of the friendly forces

…like “Only listen to what God tells you in your heart, don’t listen to the Church”?

Tim J. October 14, 2007 at 10:04 am

Steve aka Xian -
Certainly we should fast at the direction of the Holy Spirit, in as much as we are aware of it.
But fasting *together* helps us to strengthen one another (just like praying together does, and fast is a form of prayer – among other things).
It also draws us more closely together in a bond of fellowship. Things that people share in common – traditional foods, times of celebration, clothing – help to cement the feelings of community (ack!… I guess there are times that word is appropriate) and mutual affection that we have for those who are walking the road of faith with us.
I have heard it said (over and over in school) that religious freedom was established in America so that everyone could worship God “in his own way”, which is fine and all, as far as it goes… but ultimately I don’t WANT to worship God “in my own way” – I want to worship Him the way HE desires to be worshiped.
How do we know what that is? Through the Church (now, YOU may scoff at the idea of God speaking through His Church, but you would be in an uphill battle against Scripture, in that case). If the Church teaches, “You need to fast in such-and-such a way on these days”, we can be SURE that God has indeed called us personally to fast on those days. God speaks to us in many ways that don’t involve an intuition or a “feeling” that we have heard His voice. Feelings can be very dangerous things.
He may, for sure, call us to fast on other days, as well, and in other ways, but He calls us THROUGH his Church to fast alongside our brothers and sisters at certain times.
Fasting can also be a time of preparation and discipline. Jesus fasted in preparation for His public ministry, for instance. There are times when the whole Church – all of us, together – need to prepare ourselves to devoutly contemplate and celebrate the greatest events of Salvation History – things like the Incarnation and the Passion. So, Catholics fast appropriately at these times.
“If religion is just intellectualizing a system of rules & doctrine…”
It isn’t. The demons believe, and tremble.
“…then there is no real certainty that what you believe is 100% correct. However if you hear, follow & obey Him, then you’re assured that your playing for the right team (as long as who your hearing is HIM God, & not the enemy).”
And how does a person make that distinction? You “just know”? I’m sure Mormons and Muslims “just know”, too. On the other hand, if I compare what I think God has spoken to me with what He has spoken through His Church, then I have a way to be more sure. God can not contradict Himself.
Jim Jones was sure God was speaking to him… even through him. So was David Koresh. So are a host of TV charlatans.
We are not left with only our own personal opinions and feelings. God left us an earthly, visible Church, with an earthly, visible leader for precisely this purpose.

dan October 27, 2007 at 11:00 am

I fast often. Always have. I never did it as a Catholic until I came home to the Churchc recently. I do drink water though, as my body dehydrates easily.
How do people know that they are hearing from God when they feel moved to do something. How do I know it’s not something I just feel like doing? Or maybe I just think it’s good to do. When I feel moved to do something I tend to believe it’s my own mind, heart or desires that are informing me. If God wants me to do something, He has me do it, I don’t necessarily have to know I’m being pushed at all.
I went for the past 30 years on my own will. General failure was the result. I’ll try the Catholic Churches way. 2000 years of tradition, study by brilliant men of God, well formed theology. Yea I think the Church may be better informed as to God’s will than I am holed up with a bible and my own wandering thoughts. Dan

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