What is the real purpose of fasting and mortification that forms its integral part of Christian spiritual life?
For most of us, fasting and mortification means a period of abstinence from certain items of food or certain kinds of pleasures. Some avoid meat and meat products. Some others add fish and egg also to this list. Often we see some habitual drinkers abstain from alcohol for the whole of Lent. Many among the regular smokers also avoid tobacco products during this period.
No doubt, all these are good things. But the more pertinent question is what purpose these good acts serve. An explanation often put forward by many is that fasting helps us in keeping the desires of flesh under control and at the same time helping us grow in virtues. Then we should ask another question. Are habitual vegetarians better than a Christian who observes occasional fasting, in these two traits? We should not forget that Hitler was a pure vegetarian! We know many cases of heinous crimes including genocide, murder and rape committed by ‘committed vegetarians’. So food is not what defines the character of a man. This is not to dispute the role that food plays in our life, but this role should not be extrapolated to the extent that everything bad is associated with the food that one eats.
Then what is the real purpose of fasting and mortification? Fasting, penance, and mortification are the results of a voluntary decision. Nobody compels us to observe a period of mandatory abstinence. We are telling ourselves that we should be happy with a vegetarian diet, or that we will not touch liquor, or that we will give movies a miss, or that we will disconnect from social media for a specific period.
It is basic human nature that we will be attracted to something that we are denied. A classic example is what happened in the garden of Eden. Eve ate the forbidden fruit neither because of hunger nor of the lack of other good fruits in the garden. The tendency to long for what we do not have is innate in human DNA. This is why we start counting the days from the very start of fasting. We console ourselves in the hope that another few weeks and we will enjoy non- vegetarian delicacies; another few days and we will again start drinking and so on and so forth. To put it another way, the thoughts about the thing we decided to abstain from, will haunt our mind more often during the days of fasting and mortification.
The danger behind it is that we will be constantly looking towards the occasion of the culmination of fasting rather than its real goal which is to prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate what comes at the end of fasting. It is pathetic to see Christians thinking about the great days of Christmas and Easter simply as occasions to break their fast. giving scant regard to what these festivals represent.
What are we looking for during the days and weeks of fasting and mortification? Is it the hope of enjoying a sumptuous feast with delicacies of our choice, that we voluntarily denounced for a certain period? Is it a return to our old ways of life where everything was dictated by the desires of flesh? If Christmas and Easter are celebrated as occasions to return to our old way of life that was suspended for a short period, it is the greatest harm we, as Christians, do to the memory of our Lord. If we think that fasting is all about abstaining from certain food items or certain pleasures only, in that process, what Jesus Christ did for us gets relegated to second place,
Is this the fasting that God wants? In the words of Isaiah, ’Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?’ (Isa 58:5). Surely the meaning of fasting is something different. To know what true fasting means, we should turn to Jesus and the way he spent those forty days in the wilderness .
The answer to all our questions is there in the fasting of the Lord. Luke writes:’ Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished’ (Lk 4:1-20). Here we should note a big difference between the fasting of Jesus and what we call our fasting. In our case it is we who are taking the decision to start fasting. But the gospels never say that it was Jesus’ decision to go on a fast. In his case, the Holy Spirit was leading him to the wilderness for fasting!
This is the first lesson. It is not for us to take the decision to start fasting, The inspiration should come from the Holy Spirit. The reason for many of our fasting sessions commenced with much expectation getting dropped midway is because it was our own decision. Fasting, mortification and self- denial are things that should never be done trusting in our intelligence or strength. If the fasting is one prompted by the Holy Spirit it will definitely yield thirty and sixty and a hundredfold results. All others are worthless exercises that are bound to be like flowers with a life of just one day. They ‘flourish in the field, but when the wind passes over it, and it is gone (Ps 103:15)
In spite of completing the days of fasting by fighting with our self, if we fail to continue the momentum, it is because our efforts were done without seeking the help of the Holy Spirit. They are surely destined to go in vain.
As for Jesus, he was filled with the Holy Spirit before he started fasting. This is the reason for Jesus staying calm when the Spirit led him to a place not of his choice. The wilderness was not a destination of choice for Jesus. Yet he did not feel worried or disturbed because he knew that the Spirit will not lead him to a wrong place. If the Spirit could lead Jesus to the right place at the right time, we are also entitled to this special guidance from the Spirit. But often what we experience is that we somehow end up going the wrong way. We also have the Spirit of God within us right from the moment of our baptism. But the Holy Spirit finds himself unable to help us because we have knowingly or unknowingly disabled the Spirit by our own deeds.
Admittedly, we are not as filled with the Spirit as Jesus was, but it does not prevent us from seeking the guidance of the Spirit, especially when we commence such important things as fasting, because we need the help from the above to take any spiritual exercise to its desired conclusion. It was about this spirit that Jesus promised; ‘And I will ask my Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever’ (Jn 14:15). He is entrusted with the responsibility of leading us to the fullness of truth. ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’ (Jn 16:13).
So it should be our prayer to the Holy Spirit before entering the fast track of fasting to guide us. Then only the results will last long. Jesus was candid enough to tell us that we cannot do anything good without his help. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5). After the ascension of Jesus, our heavenly help comes in the form of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus completed his forty days of trial with the help of the Holy Spirit, we too should follow the same path to perfection. Fasting and mortification are ways to be with Jesus in spirit. John writes: ‘Whoever says, “I abide in him (Jesus Christ)”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (1 Jn 2:6). Throughout the period of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus walked with the Holy Spirit beside him. If we are to emulate him, we have no other way except asking the Holy Spirit to be with us, every moment of our journey, especially during those days when we are committing ourselves to undergo the rigors of fasting, penance and mortification.
The first step in this direction is to humbly admit that we are incapable of anything good without help from the above. Once we are into this realization and seek the help of the Holy Spirit before starting the fasting, half the task is accomplished. To put it another way, the decision to fast or to do acts of penance and mortification, should not be taken with our reason or logic alone. Instead, the progression from our everyday life to a life of prayer and fasting should be a natural one. For the journey from routine life to a life of penance to be easy and hassle free, the Holy Spirit should be beside us all the way. Then we will never feel the dryness that we are always afraid of whenever we think of fasting. Then the taste of those delicacies that we abstain from will not haunt us every now and then.
After the baptism in the water- rich Jordan, the Spirit takes Jesus straight to the wilderness where nothing but a dry and barren landscape awaited him. Replanting is always painful for us. Especially when it is from a comfortable zone to a place where things would not move as we plan. But for Jesus it was not so. For him the first day in the wilderness was similar to the last day he spent in Jordan. Here comes the difference between us and our Master. For us, fasting means simply abstaining from certain pleasures. But nowhere in the gospels we read that Jesus went to the wilderness to abstain from food. Then what for did he go to the desert? The Evangelist writes that for forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Only after that the gospel mentions; ‘He ate nothing at all during those days’ (Lk 4:2).
As far as we are concerned, the physical elements of fasting come first because it is related to flesh. After all we are men of flesh. For Jesus, the spiritual elements take precedence and temptation comes first, because though a human being like us, he was living in another entirely different realm, a life filled with the Holy Spirit.
How did Jesus withstand the temptations of those forty days? He was with the Father, and he spent the time in prayer. It is not a coincidence that the devil preferred the time when Jesus was in prayer to tempt him. It is the experience of all of us. When we are in prayer, the devil will try to tempt us in every possible way. He will try to distract us from focussing on a one to one relation with God the Father. The devil knows that prayer, fasting, and mortification are powerful weapons against him and his kingdom. ‘This kind can come out only through prayer (and fasting)’ (Mk 9:29). It was the folly of the devil to think that he could tempt a person who said these words immediately after a prayer and fasting session that lasted forty days!
Did you get the difference between our fasting and the fasting of Jesus? Or our prayer and the prayer of Jesus? When he decided to go on a fasting, the primary purpose of Jesus was to fight with the devil and conquer him. In other words, his fasting was with the intention of resisting the temptations and saying ‘ Amen’ to the will of his Father. Abstaining from food was a natural corollary to this main purpose. When he was engaged in a fierce battle, he simply did not care for food. That is all.
A soldier who relishes good dishes during peacetime, will not enjoy sumptuous meals during war. When he is on the war front, he will often sacrifice food, and if at all food is served, he may not be able to relish it because for him fighting the enemy is far more important than satisfying his appetite. Being a good soldier of his Father, Jesus forgot to eat anything during the time when he was engaged in a face- to- face battle with the devil. Or was it that he simply did not want to spare even a few minutes for food, lest his attention would be distracted from his primary goal, that of conquering the devil? It is obvious that his primary purpose was not simply abstaining from food, but fighting the enemy. Its proof comes in the next verse. We read that ‘when they (those forty days) were over, he was famished’ (Lk 4:2). It was when the intensity of the fight with the devil subsided, that Jesus started feeling hunger!
So we should understand one thing, that fasting started with the intention of avoiding certain food items or certain pleasures for a certain period will not yield much benefit for us spiritually. As long as we continue the fasting, our mind will keep on reminding us of the very same thing that we try to avoid. But if we start the fasting for a greater purpose, we will give only second place to the desires of flesh.
We have seen the mode of fasting and the purpose of fasting. Now it is time to think about the results of fasting. Do fasting, penance and mortification have any results? For an answer, let us go back to Jesus. We see that the end of a rigorous fasting that lasted forty days brought not any reprieve, but more powerful temptations. This is where our calculations go wrong. Often we think that we have become stronger after fasting and prayer. But the devil knows that instead of becoming stronger many of us will come out weaker after it. This is the result of the unceasing battle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit, both working in opposite directions.
Seeing an opportunity to trap us the moment we come out of fasting, the devil will come with more powerful temptations. This is the time to test whether our fasting and acts of mortification did produce any sustaining results. Those who have completed the fasting in its true spirit, will defeat the weapons of devil’s temptation one by one with the sword of Word.
On the other hand, those who approached fasting as just another religious ritual, will break the fast at the appointed time and straightaway surrender to the first available temptation that the enemy has planted on his way out from fasting. Let us remember the words of Jesus, though said in a different context; ‘And the last state of that person is worse than the first’ (Lk 11:26)
Moses was with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, that too in the mount of the Lord. Yet, when he came down, anger overpowered him. It can happen so. On our way back from the presence of God, our untiring enemy will be there at every turn offering us the attractive cups of pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth, and greed. He will never miss the exact spot where to lay his trap, because a little while before, he had seen us climbing the hills of fasting and mortification!
When the devil approached Moses in the form of wrath, the tablets containing the commandments written by God’s hands were with him. In a fit of rage, he ‘threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain’ (Ex 32:19). For a moment, he forgot that they were something so precious because of the handwriting of God that adorned it.
It was easy to destroy, but to get it back Moses had to spend another forty days and forty nights in prayer in Sinai, the Mount of God. But there was a difference this time. ‘He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water’ (Ex 34:28). His prayer was accompanied by a rigorous fasting, perhaps as penance for the sins of his people as also for the moment when he threw away the tablets. In spite of this solitary prayer and fasting that lasted forty days, Moses had to be content with another set of tablets where the handwriting of God was conspicuous by its absence. It had to be written by Moses!
We need to change our perceptions about prayer, fasting, and mortification. They have only one purpose and that is to be with God or rather to come more and more closer to God. This is not a one time affair, but a renewed life in Spirit that should continue till death. This is where we need the help of the Holy Spirit the most.
May the Holy Spirit bless us with the grace to observe fasting and mortification in its true sense and come back with more spiritual strength so as to take on the three enemies viz. the world, the devil and the flesh.
Let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit; renew me. In Jesus’ name, Amen!