Sunday, February 28, 2010

What's the point of fasting?

I fasted for the first time last Friday.

I don’t say that to boast. If I thought I had any reason to boast at all, I wouldn’t mention it. I say it only because I know how slack I am and I want anyone reading this to know how slack I am (and how little experience I have) when it comes to fasting.

I might just repeat that first sentence again, with the relevant bit in bold in case you missed it.

I fasted for the first time last Friday.

If I was serious at all about fasting, I would have fasted long before now. I would fast for the whole 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays) and give up diet coke. Although I did drink Pepsi Max for most of last Friday and that was penance enough. At the very least, I would have fasted at least one other day during this Lent season, before now.

I don’t know why I have never fasted before. It is true that fasting doesn’t get much mention from Pentecostal pulpits. And I was in the Pentecostal church for about three years before I even knew that some Pentecostals fasted. But above and beyond that, I didn’t see the point.

I knew that Catholics fasted. But even when Lent started, my thoughts were more geared towards giving up something, than abstinence and fasting. Until I saw a message printed in the parish bulletin. Which made me think I should probably consider doing it.

So now I have fasted. And with my grand one experience of one whole day, making me an expert in my own blog, I would like to tell you exactly what the point of fasting is.

Well, not exactly. More like I would like to think about what the point of fasting might be - or might not be. And because I’m a blogger and I think better when I write, I’m writing a blog post about it.

First of all, to the non-points of fasting. The point of fasting is not to lose weight or save money. They’re earthly benefits. And if we’re fasting to gain earthly benefits, then I think we might miss out on the spiritual ones. And as this seems to be quite a honest post, I will tell you that the thought of both did cross my mind. I thought maybe I’ll lose weight. And I’ll definitely save money. Yay! But if that’s my reason for fasting, I’d be better off calling it dieting and frugality.

Another reason for fasting, that I have heard from some people, is to have their prayers answered. Now the people who I have heard this from have fasted more than I have. So I don’t really want to say their reasons are invalid. But it does seem to be sliding into that area of wanting earthly benefit rather than spiritual benefit again. Although I suppose it depends what you’re praying for. If you’re praying for a new car, I don’t think fasting is going to help too much. If you’re fasting to try and have a prayer answered to overcome sin, then that’s probably a good thing. I think. Maybe.

I may as well face it. I’m not even an expert on my own blog. I can’t even say anything without wondering whether what I am saying makes any kind of sense at all.

But one thing I do know about is me. So maybe I should talk about that. Me and my reasons for fasting.

I decided to fast first of all because I saw that message in the parish bulletin. But also because I want to continually try and get just a little bit closer to where I want to be. And I thought fasting might help me do that. Some people diet to improve their bodies. I wanted to fast to improve my soul.

And I still don’t think my reasons are that fantastic. There’s probably much better reasons for fasting that I haven’t even thought of. But that was my main reason.

But it’s still about ‘getting’ in a way. And to go back to what I said about not seeing the point of fasting. When people say ‘I don’t see the point’, what they are often (not always, but often) saying is ‘I don’t see what I am going to get out of it.’ Of course, the point to a lot of things is not actually to get something out of it.

But still, it’s interesting that I only tried to fast when I saw something I might get out of it. Although these are spiritual goals, not earthly ones, the principle is the same as the reasons why people do many things. I have a goal. I thought fasting might help get - there’s that get word again - me closer to that goal.

But then, all getting isn’t necessary bad and all giving up isn’t necessary good. If I was to get closer to God, that’s a good thing, right? If I want to give up church, that’s a bad thing.

And so maybe I shouldn’t be thinking of fasting as needing to avoid ‘getting something’. I just need to make sure that what I am trying to get is a good thing.

The other point to fasting is penance. I can’t say this crossed my mind nearly as much as it should have. (In fact, I probably thought of it about the same number of times as I thought of losing weight and saving money.) It’s a very important reason for fasting. I know that. And that’s about all I do know. So something that should be discussed in detail is only going to get a couple of sentences. And you’ve just read them.

One other thing that crosses my mind about fasting (although I’m not sure whether it’s considered a reason for fasting at all) is that suffering brings you closer to God. That’s not a popular opinion nowadays. But I do believe it’s true. And I think maybe one of the reasons we don’t accept that as readily nowadays is because many people (in the western world) no longer know what it really is to suffer.

My idea of suffering is drinking Pepsi Max instead of Diet Coke. And I have to say that drinking Pepsi Max does not bring me any closer to God. But then it’s not really suffering. Nor is going without food for a day. If I was actually starving, that would be different.

So I don’t know what it is to really suffer. But one thing I do know is that, in my darkest moments, at the times when life seems really difficult, I am far closer to God than I am when everything is going well. And I don’t know whether everyone else is completely different to me and won’t understand this next sentence at all. But for myself, if I was to never suffer anything in life, I think there is a very good chance I may forget God completely.

And that almost sounds like the saying we hear so often that ‘Religion is only a crutch.’ But I don’t mean it in that way. It’s not like I turn to God only because I want him to help me. I turn to God because when I suffer, I think of God more.

In Luke 22:44, it says that Jesus, being in anguish (some translations have agony), prayed more earnestly. I saw that verse in something else I was reading recently. And it was one of those verses that I have read many times, but that suddenly seemed to jump out at me. And I thought of all the times I have prayed, when I was deeply distressed or troubled. The more anguish I feel over something, the more earnestly do I pray. The prayers said when I am happy and everything is fine are never prayed as fervently.

I seem to have gone slightly off track. Back to fasting.

Jesus not only mentioned fasting, he fasted himself. He didn’t do it to get any earthly benefit. The devil tempted him afterwards, and he resisted temptation. Nor did he do it to ‘improve his soul’. His soul was already perfect. And that is what makes me think that my reasons for fasting may not be that good.

In the Cantena aurea, I found a commentary from St John Chrysostom, saying that Christ fasted, ‘not Himself needing it, but teaching us by His example’.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed in reading this. Because I thought if I could understand Jesus’ reasons for fasting, maybe I would be a bit closer to understanding the point myself.

I’ve just been reading different things on the internet, trying to find some good point to end this post on. But the more I read, the more I realise that any attempt to summarise it and put it into my blog is not going to do justice to it. I didn’t become an expert on fasting through my one day’s experience. And I’m certainly not going to become an expert by spending one to two hours on the internet, trying to skim through things that I don’t really understand anyway.

So I think I’ll just leave it here.


  1. Hi Liz
    I thought that the point of fasting was to purify the body in order to receive the the pure energy that pours down from God. And with it, the clear and calm state of mind that allows you to see the truth.

    I haven't done it for years - tho i keep thinking i should - so now i am thinking about it some more.

    If you want to fast really successfully you should have a pre-fast diet of pure food - no diet coke - then go to juices then go to water because your body first of all has to throw off toxins. And the western diet makes this a big task. I'm feeling more and more unhealthy as i write this.

    One thing i discovered, when i fasted, was that if you aren't in the right frame of mind when you attempt it, it can be very disturbing. You should be okay though - with all that time spent thinking of God. Once you get beyond the intense longing for food, it just gets easier. I'm sure you would have heard this.

    You might think I am focusing on the physical benefits here and not the suffering but it really is quite an effort - tho the suffering is in order to gain something. And if it's good for the body - why wouldn't that make God happy?

  2. Hi Teresa,

    I was talking more about fasting as a spiritual discpline within Christianity. Whereas I think the idea of receiving energy from God is something that would belong to other religions.

    I think the kind of fasting you've mentioned sounds quite good from a health perspective. It seems like a good idea to remove toxins from your body in such a way. And I think possibly God would be pleased at going on a fast for health reasons.

    But I also think that fasting for health reasons is a very different thing to fasting for spiritual reasons. But as you may have guessed from reading my post, I'm hardly an expert.

    I do need to give up diet coke. It's very bad for me, especially with how much I drink. But it's very addictive. I find it extremely hard to go even a day without drinking diet coke. And the end of last year, I tried giving up both diet coke and smoking and it's hard to say what was the most difficult.


  3. Dear Liz,

    I'm not sure if you're trying to be deliberately amusing in this post or not, but it certainly amused me.

    The way you talk about getting to some point, and how you hope you'll discover what it is, just amuses me.

    The more honest a person is, the funnier they are.

    I told the blokes at the local bottle shop I was giving up alcohol for Lent. I'm pretty sure I bought a carton of beer on Ash Wednesday. One of the blokes said, "I thought you said you were giving up beer for Lent?" I thought about it, and said, "Oh I must have been drunk when I said that." And he burst out laughing.

    The real point of fasting is to conquer our concupiscence. It is to practice self-denial, and strengthen our spirit. Fasting is not without its spiritual rewards. It is usually accompanied by an infusion of grace. It is meant to have spiritual rewards. They motivate us to do it. To do something in order to increase grace is your soul is a holy and wholesome thing to do.

    And, anything done for supernatural reasons far outweighs things done for merely natural reasons. To forgo some pleasure purely for the love of God, pleases Him immensely.

    It is also a great weapon against the attacks and temptations of the devil.

    As Our Lord Himself said, "Certain demons are only cast out by prayer and fasting."

    There are two things Catholics are supposed to do during Lent. Fast, and abstain. Going without meat on Friday is not fasting. It is abstaining. But it has the same effect. It is an act of self denial.

    I'm going to have chilli-garlic prawns and baked snapper on Fridays. No meat for this penitential duck.

    As Our Lord said, "He who wants to follow me must deny himself."

    Most of the questions you pose in relation to matters such as the subject of this post, are all explained in the Cathechism in a very simple way.

    It is a tragedy that people are not taught the simple truths from the old Penny Catechism.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post.

    David ...

  4. Hi David,

    I wouldn’t say I was ‘trying to be deliberately amusing’. Things just come out the way they come out. But if you were amused, then I’m happy with that. If I can’t be informative, at least be amusing.

    I think the more serious I am about something, the less serious I sound. I remember many conversations with my Pentecostal friends, where I’d be saying ‘I’m serious’. And they’d just be laughing at me, convinced that I wasn’t serious at all. It probably didn’t help that I was laughing right along with them. Because I know how ridiculous I sound sometimes. And when someone sounds ridiculous, that’s pretty amusing. Even if it is myself.

    I learnt some time ago that if you are quitting something, never tell the people who work at the place you buy it from. I made the mistake of telling the workers at my local service station that I was giving up diet coke and cigarettes. Big mistake. For about a month, every time I went in there, they felt free to comment on what I was buying - because it was pretty obvious I hadn’t stuck with my resolution.

    The thing I saw in the parish bulletin described the difference between fasting and abstinence. It also talked about some of the old rules for fasting and abstinence during Lent and urged people to fast on Fridays and Wednesdays. But it didn’t really talk about the reasons. Which is understandable in a way, because there’s only so much room in a parish bulletin. Also, it was part 2. And I missed out on seeing part 1, because I wasn’t there the Sunday before. Until I read the bulletin, I was going without meat on Fridays but had not even thought about fasting.

    Something I read (somewhere on the internet, but I can’t remember where) said that the rules for fasting did not apply for the feast of St Joseph. So I’m deciding (because it suits my purposes) that the information I received off the internet (probably from a very dodgy source) is completely true and correct. So on the feast day of St Joseph, I will still abstain from meat, but not fast.

    My chocoholic son was given a chocolate bar by my grandmother the other day. He had said he was giving up chocolate for Lent, but I told him it was up to him whether he ate it now or waited until the end of Lent. This was two days ago. It is still sitting in the fridge, unopened. I'm very impressed with him. The only problem is I'm tempted to eat it. And I kind of wish he'd just eaten it so temptation wasn't staring me in the face every time I opened the fridge door.

    I don't think I've reached the part of the catechism that talks about fasting. Or maybe I did, but it just didn't sink in. Which is quite possible.


  5. Really interesting thoughts, thanks so much for posting them.

    We'd love to hear your thoughts on this article about Fasting that's been written on the Bible Reflections site.



Bookmark and Share

Blog Patrol