“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12–13).
An Ancient Practice
Fasting wasn’t invented by Christians (or Jews, for that matter) but is a universal human practice that the Lord and His Church have sanctified. Periodic, self-imposed limitations on food are attested in just about every culture as a means of supplicating or appeasing angry gods. We see it even in today’s secular culture, but the gods are those of health and wellness rather than wind and rain.
As with many (though certainly not all) pagan practices, we see glimmers of true religion in these rituals. Fasting does improve our relationship with the divine, but it’s the loving, triune God of the Bible, not the cranky, manmade gods of ancient times, or even the gods of fitness, to whom we must dedicate our sacrifices.
That is, ultimately, what fasting is: a sacrifice. And sacrifice is essential to worship, which is, in turn, the pinnacle duty of the virtue of religion. By “religion,” we mean the justice that we owe to God as our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer—a debt that we can never repay but can approximate by offering the very best of ourselves to Him. One of the ways we do this is by relinquishing something that we value highly, such as our comfort and freedom from hunger, and offering it to the Lord.
Here’s how Dag Tessore, author of a beautiful little book on fasting, describes sacrifice in Scripture: “God commanded . . . sacrifices to see if man believed in him, or if he was capable of doing something that makes sense only if God exists.” This, as we will see, distinguishes fasting from healthy eating or dieting: Are we truly sacrificing and offering it to God? Does it make sense only for His sake?
This is what we see in the quotation from the book of the prophet Joel above. Fasting was part of a collection of penances the Israelites would take upon themselves to atone for sins or to beg a favor or pardon from the Lord. Fasting, which mortifies our appetite for food, appears along sackcloth (mortifying our appetite for comfort) and ashes (mortifying our appetite for admiration) several times in the Old Testament. Together, they amount to a renunciation of the temporary goods of this world in favor of the eternal good of the world to come.
This is why the Lord tells His prophet, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Whatever good these penitential practices might do in terms of this world—maybe fasting sheds a few extra pounds and sackcloth, who knows, exfoliates?—is irrelevant to their spiritual value. Fasting, as a spiritual discipline, is much more about the heart than about the stomach.
And so we read in the book of Jonah that the city of Nineveh repented after the prophet delivered God’s judgment. The king announced: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but
let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God” (Jonah 3:7–8). Calling upon the name of the Lord is an essential act of faithfulness in the Old Testament, and it is magnified and sealed by the sacrifice of food and comfort made by the citizens of the city
And in the book of Ezra, that prophet writes:
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a straight way for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way; since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good upon all that seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all that forsake him.” So we fasted and besought our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.Ezra 8:21–23
At this time, Ezra was leading the Israelites home to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. The fast demonstrated to his people that physical liberation from captivity was not enough; they needed to be further purified, spiritually, to be ready to take up the duties of the People of God in Jerusalem once again. Further, we see again how fasting magnifies the efficacy of prayer by coupling it to a sacrifice that is a physical act of faith in the Lord. It was in this context, in which fasting was understood as a prayerful and spiritually purifying sacrifice to the Lord, that the first Christians took up the practice.
Reasons to Fast
What is the point to be pale-faced through fasting if then you become livid with bitterness and envy? What is the point of not drinking wine, if then you become drunk with the poison of anger? What is the point of abstaining from meat, which was created to be eaten, whilst tearing your brothers limb from limb with malice and calumny?Maximus of Turin, Sermones, 18, quoted in Tessore, Fasting, 58.
Ultimately, we should fast for the same reason we should do anything else: It is pleasing to the Lord. Our sacrifices, so long as they are made for and to Him, give Him glory by demonstrating that we organize our lives around the reality of the triune God, not the gods of pleasure and power and worldly satisfaction. And fasting, as we have seen, has been preeminent among the sacrifices practiced by Christians and enforced by the Church from the very beginning
But fasting, like any good work, also has other benefits. As the best thinkers have realized since at least Aristotle, virtue is developed by forming good habits—and ditching bad habits. And many of our most engrained habits involve actions that are essential to life, especially eating and drinking. We get used to certain foods and beverages at certain times, and it can be very hard to imagine forming habits different from the ones we’re accustomed to.
These habits, like any, can be good or bad, but in twenty-first-century America, at least, it’s fair to say that there are a lot of not-so-great food and drink habits. Fasting, especially on a weekly basis and even very lightly, can be a way of forming good habits and weakening bad ones. Setting aside days for limiting our consumption to particular foods at particular times forces us to be thoughtful (and prayerful) about what we eat. And thoughtfulness about something as basic as food is good training for thoughtfulness about other aspects of our lives. When we ask ourselves if our food and drink habits glorify God, we can be reminded to ask if our other habits glorify Him as well.
Fasting, therefore, can also train the will. There are few feelings more primal than the urge to eat when we are hungry. (There’s a reason the Church uses “appetite” as a synonym for “desire.”) Training ourselves to endure these impulses for the sake of a higher good—namely, God—teaches us to place them in their proper place—namely, under the control of our reason. This bears fruit in other aspects of our lives when our appetites try to take the reins, especially sexuality
What are some bad reasons to fast? We hinted at them earlier, but they all involve fasting to achieve worldly goods rather than spiritual ones. “Fasting” in order to get an attractive figure for beach season isn’t really fasting at all: It’s dieting. The fact that fasting properly may have side benefits for our health demonstrates how the things God wants for us are good for us, body and soul. But losing weight is not a good primary reason to fast on Fridays; honoring the Lord by commemorating His Passion and death is
Also, as St. Maximus the Confessor points out above, if we become miserable and cruel while eating less food, we aren’t really fasting at all. True fasting involves a turning to God and away from our appetites, including the appetites for anger, envy, and so on. If fasting from food results in spiritual struggles elsewhere, we need to confront those struggles—and perhaps adjust our fasting from food so that it doesn’t cause more harm than good, for ourselves and those around us.
After all, as we said at the very beginning, fasting should be joyful. When we deny ourselves worldly satisfactions for a higher, heavenly good, we make the reality of the Trinity manifest in our lives. Let us pray that this book, by providing inspiration for simple and beautiful meals for times of fasting, will inspire us to make fasting a regular part of our spiritual lives.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an essay in the book The Lenten Cookbook, with essays by Scott Hahn and recipes by chef and former Swiss guard David Geisser. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.