The Spiritual Meaning of Fasting
– by Carlos Alonso Vargas
When people talk about fasting these days, it is most common to focus on what we might call its “social” or “horizontal” dimension: it is said that fasting finds its meaning in giving to the poor the food that one didn’t eat when fasting (or the monetary equivalent of such food.) Therefore, we deprive ourselves of food in order to share it with the needy.
That is, without a doubt, a praiseworthy expression and justification for fasting. It encourages us to share our material goods with those who regularly need them, when we regularly have them. Moreover, it brings us to a true solidarity with them: by not eating, we experience “in our own flesh” (literally) what they commonly experience because of their destitution.
Not only is it good to regard fasting in this way, but it has a clear foundation even in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 58:3-12 (especially vv. 6-10) the Lord rebukes those who fast while exploiting their laborers, and states what true fasting is, the fast that is pleasing to him – releasing the captives, being kind to the needy, not exercising brute force. I must clarify, however, that the point of this passage is not so much that we should give to the poor the food that we don’t eat or the money we don’t use, but that our life ought to be consistent. In order for fasting to be pleasing to God, it must go together with a righteous life, a life in which we treat others fairly and do not take advantage of them, and in which we share our goods and help the needy. If, on the other hand, we are unfair and selfish, our fasting and other religious practices will be something merely external which is worthless before God.
Even some Fathers of the Church, (1) in the early centuries of Christianity explicitly mention this practice of giving to the poor the food that we give up when fasting. And it has been a part of all of the major streams of Christianity throughout the centuries.
It seems, however, that in modern times there is a tendency to emphasize exclusively this “social” aspect of fasting, which, even if it has solid foundations in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, does not exhaust the meaning of fasting. This social dimension is so strongly emphasized today that it seems as if other dimensions, which also give value and meaning to the practice of fasting, have been forgotten or set aside.
In Catholic tradition (I speak of it because it’s the tradition I know best) there is also a certain tendency to view fasting as a “sacrifice” understood as “deprivation.” This also has its foundations (which Ie will refer to further on,) but it is easily distorted into a “commercial” relationship: people have a tendency to think that depriving yourself of things “earns you points” before God. This matches a wrong way of understanding what “sacrifice” means—it is not necessarily a negation or deprivation, but rather an offering, a gift given to God to worship him and recognize his lordship.
People also highlight the practical reality that when we are fasting we have more time available for prayer. This is true, and it is also true that it is very advisable to turn to prayer during the times one would normally be eating. It is also true – as we will see further on – that fasting and prayer are closely related to each other. But that does not mean that this is the reason for fasting, or that it completely explains the practice of fasting and gives it meaning. That would be like saying that Christian fasting is for losing weight – it is true that if you fast you may lose weight, but this will be a by-product of the fast, not its main objective. (If that were the main objective, then we can no longer refer to it as Christian fasting nor to fasting as a religious practice.)
Background in Scripture and in Christian Tradition
In the Old Testament we find that fasting is practiced mainly with two purposes: “to afflict the soul” and “to seek the face of the Lord.” By “afflicting the soul,” the Old Testament mainly refers to breaking our own pride: by depriving yourself of food, we are no longer satisfied and don’t have anything to boast about. We are in a kind of mourning. Meanwhile, “seeking the face of the Lord” refers to engaging into a personal relationship with God, characterized by righteousness and obedience to his commandments.
As for Christians, we know for sure that fasting was practiced from the very beginning; this is indicated in the New Testament (Mt 6:16; 9:15; Acts 13:3; 14:23; 27:9; 1 Cor 7:5) and it is clearly stated in the Didache (2) and other ancient writings. But the so-called “Desert Fathers” (pioneers of the monastic movement in the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Palestine, from the 4th century on) were the first ones to state at least two very clear purposes for fasting – communion with God and Christian growth. For them, fasting is one of the main means for fighting against the passions – that is, acquiring self-control, and fighting against temptation – and also a form of spiritual warfare against the enemy.
Dimensions of the spiritual meaning of fasting
When speaking about the “spiritual” meaning we are referring directly to what relates to our personal relationship with God, our Christian growth and our lives of holiness, which include, of course, every aspect of our lives. This is a relationship of communion with God in the Holy Spirit, and hence we call it “spiritual.” Thus, we are not in any way using the word “spiritual” in dualistic terms, as it is commonly understood among the followers of esoteric or occult schools, where it is opposed to the “material,” which is considered as evil – or at least inferior to the unseen.
On the contrary: as we shall see, precisely because Christianity is not dualistic but considers the human being as a unified entity, something material like fasting (which is a practice directly related to our body, our matter) has its implications for and effects in our spiritual life. So, what gives fasting a spiritual meaning?
- Fasting as “seeking the face of the Lord”
Fasting is something whose physical effects, especially after a few hours, we can feel, experience or perceive: this sensation, perhaps not always of true hunger, but at least a “desire to eat,” helps us remember – whether we want to or not – that we are fasting. And if we remember that we are fasting, we will immediately remember why we are fasting. We could then direct all of our attention to ourselves (what are we feeling, how much we think we need food…) or if we truly are serious as Christians, it won’t be hard to instead direct our attention towards God, because, regardless of the purpose of that specific fast, we are ultimately doing it for God’s sake and for the sake of our relationship with him.
This is why fasting has been traditionally understood as a means of “penitence,” that is, of conversion to God, of personally turning back to him. Fasting, then, as prayer, is a means for what the Old Testament calls “seeking the face of the Lord,” that is to say, relating personally to him, being in his presence, seeking intimacy with him. This is clearly seen when, in a day of fasting, we devote ourselves to prayer: it is much easier to pray – be it praise, repentance, petition or any other kind of prayer – to relate personally to God, when we are fasting than when we have our stomach full and are totally satisfied.
Fasting allows us, indeed, to vividly experience the reality that God is our greatest good, our treasure, what we most long for. When we feel physical hunger we will more easily be hungry for God, for his presence and his power, and we will be able to live out the truth that he is the only one who can truly fill us and satisfy us. Moreover, by fasting we are declaring with our bodies that what we are interested in above all is being close to the Lord.
Then the answer that Jesus gave to the devil at the end of his fast in the desert, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, is fulfilled in us: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). That is why, precisely, fasting is directly related not only to prayer, but also to our feeding on the Word of God in Scripture. It is also an expression of how earnestly we are “seeking the face of the Lord”.
- Fasting as a means of “afflicting the soul”
The Hebrew expression “afflicting the soul” refers to humbling ourselves. It is the opposite of “being puffed up” or “becoming vain.” A person who has everything material, or who is satisfied and full after a banquet, will easily boast about his abundance. “Afflicting the soul” is in a certain way to mourn. Tthat is why parties and banquets prevent us from “afflicting our soul.” Thus, fasting is a practical way of humbling ourselves, limiting ourselves and putting ourselves in a situation of need.
Food is something necessary and good. It is part of God’s creation and he provides it for our sustenance and our joy. Thus, when we fast we are not giving up something bad, but depriving ourselves of something good, something that we need.
In other words, fasting is becoming poor. By doing without something that is necessary, something to which we are entitled, we are making ourselves needy before God. We are presenting ourselves before him empty-handed, in poverty. We recognize ourselves as in need of him, hungry for him. And this is nothing less than being “poor in spirit” –recognizing ourselves as poor, recognizing that we cannot attain blessedness by our own means, that the power to save us is not in our own hands. And these poor in spirit, Jesus says, are blessed because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). When we recognize ourselves as poor and limited before God, we open ourselves to the blessing, the salvation and the happiness he has for us.
- Fasting and spiritual sensitivity
If much food easily makes us sluggish and distracts us (cf. Lk. 21:34), being deprived of it through fasting may help us to be more sensitive and alert to spiritual realities: the presence of God and his power, the message of his Word, the guidance of the Spirit. Hence it is possible that, when we are fasting, some gifts of the Spirit (like discernment) may become more intense or manifest themselves more easily.
That is why the Desert Fathers saw fasting as one of the main ways of “vigilance,” of watching before the Lord, as Jesus commands us in the Gospel (Mt. 24:42-44). Much food makes us drowsy. Fasting helps us to stay awake and be ready for the Lord’s action. This is the reason why fasting is recommended to those who are about to be baptized as adults or who are being prepared for confirmation.
- Fasting, prayer and sacrifice
Fasting in a certain way is prayer. It amounts to making our whole body participate in prayer by presenting it empty, poor and needy before God. It is precisely because we are unified beings (we are not a soul “locked” into a body-prison or a body-shell, but a unified being consisting of body and soul, a material element and a spiritual one,) that our body “participates” in prayer. Prayer is not something exclusively mental or interior – prayer belongs to the whole human being. In the same way, when we pray we stand or kneel, raise our hands or fold them, close our eyes, sing.
In the case of fasting, it is the whole body that is entering into prayer. Fasting is taking prayer to a corporal level, showing that our prayer is so “serious” that we come to it with our whole being, that we are able to go “from words to deeds”.
We thus arrive at a correct understanding of fasting as sacrifice. These days, many Christians have the idea that a sacrifice involves, first of all, denying themselves something instead of enjoying it, or even having that deprivation cause pain. But sacrifices in the Old Testament were not so much things that people would deny themselves of, but mainly things people offered or delivered to God as a gift of worship to him.
A frequent event nowadays might help us understand this. When political leaders or a heads of state visit another country they often place a wreath, a “floral offering,” if you will, at a monument that has a special significance for the country being visited. By doing so they arenot “depriving” themselves of anything but giving a gift as a way of recognizing and honoring the value or the importance of that monument and, therefore, of the host country itself. Similarly, presenting a sacrifice or an offering to God is a way of recognizing him and honoring him as God, in other words, worshiping him. (Of course, when people would “give” an ox or a sheep to God in sacrifice, the animals would have to be killed, or when they “gave” him an offering of wine they poured it out as a libation, because that was the way of saying that they were renouncing their own use of these things and giving them over to the Lord, consecrating them to him. In that sense they were “depriving” themselves of them. But the main thing about a sacrifice is not the deprivation itself, nor the suffering that may cause, but the giving or the dedication/consecration.) We can then see that sacrifice, in the biblical sense, has a positive dimension. It is giving more than it is taking away.
In the New Covenant, only the sacrifice of Christ gathers all the Old Testament sacrifices in itself, surpasses them and abolishes them, as is explained at length in the letter to the Hebrews. This unique sacrifice is the maximum and definitive expression of worship to God, which all Christians join ourselves to as the body of Christ we are. But precisely because of that union with Christ, the New Testament claims that we too, in our worship to God, “offer spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet 2:5). The letter to the Hebrews mentions two examples of such sacrifices: our praise, and sharing what we have with others (Heb. 13:15-16).
In addition, Paul tells us that the authentic or “spiritual” worship we must offer to God is to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). Even though it is possible that by “body” he means our whole being, it is precisely about our whole being because it encompasses our physical body. We would be stretching the text too much if we said that Paul is specifically referring to fasting. But at the same time, if fasting is something we do with our body, it is a concrete expression of this authentic worship in which we present our body and our being before God.
- A form of intercession
Because of its strong connection with prayer, fasting can specifically be a form of intercession. Some Christians believe that even during the times of the day when they are not praying, our body, in fasting, continues the prayer: it is like an ongoing intercession, not with words nor with the mind but with the body that is being “presented to God” as an offering.
That is why we could say we are fasting “for” a given need or petition that we are bringing before God. Fasting to intercede could be a way to make our intercession more intense, serious and complete before God.
- “Fighting against the passions”
As we have said, fasting is depriving ourselves of something necessary and good – food. In order to fast, we must exercise willpower, because what we would “instinctively” or by nature do is eat. Fasting is a decision that requires self-control, but it doesn’t just require it – it exercises it. By controlling ourselves in something that is natural and good (the desire to eat, hunger,) our character is strengthened and we acquire more self-control in general. Self-control, let us recall, is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23) – that is to say, it’s part of mature Christian character.
Therefore, fasting is a way in which we learn to control all those other desires which are not good. It is a way to defeat our inclination towards evil and overcome temptation. It is, in that sense, a “spiritual exercise,” a “discipline.”
- Spiritual Warfare
Precisely because fasting strengthens our Christian character, it equips us to face the enemy’s wiles and temptations. It is, then, a weapon of Christian warfare against Satan. That is why fasting is associated with exorcism (Mk. 9:29, in some versions); that is why fasting is one of the typical practices for Lent, when we intensify the Christian warfare against all the manifestations of evil in our life.
Some practical instructions on fasting
Like many other traditional Christian practices, fasting declined much in Western societies from the times of the Enlightenment (18th century,) and was impacted, of course, by the resulting secularization and de-Christianization of society. This caused many good Christians to stop fasting, or never to learn how to do it, because they could not find persuasive reasons to do so. The modern emphasis on the “horizontal dimension” that I spoke about the beginning of the article has emerged in modern times as the only valid reason many would accept for fasting, not taking into account the spiritual meaning I have presented here.
In the specific case of the Catholic Church (the tradition I know best) its requirements concerning fasting were loosened greatly around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), largely with the intention of facilitating the participation of the faithful in the liturgy and their experience of conversion in a deeper sense, in the midst of modern society. Even though that intention had some good in it, its negative result has been the almost complete disappearance of fasting as a spiritual discipline amongst Latin rite Catholics. The Catholic Church’s precept on fasting is still in force (although only for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,) but the norm is extremely lax, since it describes fasting as having three meals during the day, only one of which is to be “a main meal” (a non-defined term) and such that the other two together are smaller than the main meal; and not eating anything in between meals. In my estimation, it qualifies as a “light fast.” On top of that, many Catholics, not understanding the meaning of fasting, limit themselves to doing the minimum required to obey the norm. Other Christian traditions may practice fasting with more rigor.
The relaxed definition of fasting from food encourages people to “fast” from (deprive themselves of) other things that are not food – smoking, drinking alcohol, eating sweets, going to the movies, watching too much television, etc. As a result, many people do not fast from food itself but deprive themselves of these other things. Those forms of self-denial are often admirable and can certainly have their place in the Christian life, and they can help in self-control. They are related to fasting and share some of its spiritual meaning, but are not in themselves fasting or a replacement for an actual fast.
Here are some ways of fasting that can, in general, be practiced in the circumstances of modern life.
- “Normal” or “basic” fasting
This, I would recommend, be a fast for one day. It can be repeated over several days, but always with a meal at the end of each day. It consists of the following:
– The day before, meals must be normal; dinner must not be too abundant (not “filling up” the day before in order to endure the fast).
– Do not have breakfast or lunch; you can drink something at those times.
– Eat dinner in the evening, but a rather light dinner (if not, it may cause indigestion; and it is also not the case that we want to fill ourselves up to compensate for having fasted).
– Do not eat between meals; you can drink water or other liquids.
- The “half-fast” or half-day fast
This is a milder version of the previous one:
– Normal meals the day before.
– No breakfast; you may drink something.
– Eat lunch normally, that is, break the fast at noon.
– Do not eat between breakfast and lunch; water or other liquids may be drunk.
- Mild fast
– Normal meals the day before.
– Do not eat breakfast or lunch, but at those times (or at one of them,) in addition to drinking, you may eat something small like a piece of bread, a fruit or some salad.
– Eat dinner in the evening.
– Do not eat between meals; water or other liquids may be drunk.
- Bread-and-Water fast
This form of fasting was quite common among Christians in former times. It is stricter than the “normal” one and can be very helpful when fasting for two or more days.
– Normal meals the day before.
– Do not eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, but only a piece of bread and some water at those three times.
– Do not eat in between meal times; water may be taken.
Many Christians, if they do a “normal” fast, do it for one day. If they decide to take on a stricter fast, they may repeat the “normal” fast over many days or (if they are experienced) do the “bread and water” fast. It is also possible to combine in a week one day of “normal” fasting (e.g. Wednesdays and Fridays are traditional fasting days) with a “moderate” fast or a “half-day” fast the remaining days (except Sunday. Christian tradition indicates that one does not fast on Sundays, not even during Lent, with the exception, at least in my tradition, of fasting before taking Communion. Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is the day when “the Bridegroom is with them” and is a feast day.)
For the Christian practice of fasting, here are some guidelines:
– In order to care for your own health, do not stop drinking water on fast days. Dehydration is very dangerous.
– Do not “feast” before a fast nor at the time of breaking it; not only would this take away its meaning but it may cause physical problems.
– Small children and sick people must not do a “normal” fast. Older people should only fast if they are capable of doing it. These people, if they are to fast, can do it in a reduced way, like the “moderate” fast or the “half-day” fast described above.
– The same applies to people whose health condition prevents them from spending many hours without eating, as is the case with some types of diabetes.
– Someone who has never practiced fasting or who has practiced it only a little should not venture into suddenly fasting for more than one day. Even more, a fast like that should only be undertaken for serious spiritual reasons, after having discerned (hopefully with advice from other people, and especially from a wise spiritual advisor) that it is the right thing to do, for a special reason, in order to further spiritual growth.
– In the practice of fasting in its various forms, each person must find what works best for their physical condition and their age, and what is most fruitful in their Christian life.
Fasting has been an immensely valuable discipline in the whole biblical and Christian history. Today’s Christians can recover its meaning and its practice, always seeking “the fast that the Lord chooses” (Is 58:6-10), that is, a consistent Christian life and not merely external practices. If we do so, we will discover the great fruit fasting can bear in our Christian growth, in our personal relationship with God and in our communion with the rest of the Christian people.
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1) Saint Leo the Great (fifth century): “May our fasting contribute to the relief of the needy. No sacrifice by the believers is more acceptable to the Lord than one the poor can benefit from” (Sermon 48, 5; PL 54:300). Similar ideas might perhaps be found in other Fathers.
2) The Didache or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” is the most ancient non-biblical Christian writing; it dates probably from the late first century or the middle of the second.
Carlos Alonso Vargas is a coordinator at the Arbol de Vida community in San Jose, Costa Rica. Adapted from “Un discípulo en camino” and taken from Living Bulwark: April-May, 2017. Photo in the public domain.