Why Do We Fast?
Fr. Gregory Hallam · March 7, 2011
When did fasting begin? Did Jesus start the whole thing off? The righteous and the repentant fasted in the Old Testament. Well, what about Abraham then? The fact is, humankind was taught to fast right from the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden.
We are on the edge now of Great Lent. Tonight the Great Fast begins. Let us start with a basic but not often asked question. When did fasting begin? Did Jesus start the whole thing off? Certainly not. The righteous and the repentant fasted in the Old Testament. Well, what about Abraham then? No, before that. You see, humankind was taught to fast right from the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden. We read in Genesis:
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” [Genesis 2:16]
There were two trees in the garden of Eden; the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Right at the very beginning of human history, Adam and Eve were taught to fast by being instructed by God not to eat from the fruit of the first tree. There must have been a reason for this. We don’t just fast because we are told to, although if we are immature in the things of God, sheer obedience is required of us precisely because we do not have the capacity to understand. However, we are Christians, we have seen the true Light (which is Christ) and we have the Holy Spirit. We need to understand the reason for fasting, not in order to obey, but because we are children of God and our heavenly Father desires that we should have faith with wisdom, as befits our maturity in the grace of God.
Fasting was necessary from the very beginning because, spiritually speaking, we were immature, in need of restraining our appetites so that are passions might not outstrip us and lead us into sin. As St. Irenaeus wrote: “Man was a little one, and his discretion still undeveloped, wherefore also he was easily misled by the deceiver.” Adam and Eve made the error of thinking that they could attain to a knowledge of good and evil quite apart from their relationship with God and the commandments of God. This demonically inspired spirit of independence is what led them into that ruinous state which has afflicted us all ever since - the Fall. Fasting, therefore, has always been necessary - not because of the Fall, but in order that we might attain spiritual maturity, freedom, divine sonship and deification.
After the Fall, fasting necessarily acquired another characteristic and it connects with our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Fasting becomes necessary in order to avoid evil and the danger of immortal death, which is hell. Our primal parents were excluded from Eden NOT as a punishment, but to protect them from the consequences of going on to eat from the second tree, the Tree of Life, lest they should have been tempted to do this in their fallen state. If they had gone on to eat from that Tree, the fruit of which is immortality, they would have been immobilised in death for all eternity. Like an insect fossilised and frozen in amber, they would never have broken free from corruption. That is why the way back into Eden was guarded by an angel—to protect them. As St. John Chrysostom taught:
“Partaking of the tree, the man and woman became liable to death and subject to the future needs of the body. Adam was no longer permitted to remain in the Garden, and was bidden to leave, a move by which God showed His love for him … he had become mortal, and lest he presume to eat further from the tree which promised an endless life of continuous sinning, he was expelled from the Garden as a mark of divine solicitude, not of necessity.” [St. John Chrysostom Hom. in Gen XVIII, 3 PG 53 151]
The exclusion zone around the Tree of Life was only removed when man’s self-imposed curse was lifted by the death and resurrection of Christ on the Tree of Calvary, bringing forgiveness, eternal life and the possibility of being reunited with God.
With St. Irenaeus, we acclaim:
“God the Son became Man in order to regather in Himself the ancient creation, so that He might slay sin and destroy the power of death, and give life to all men.”
[Against the Heresies, III, xix 6 ANF]
The Tree of Life is now made available to us in Holy Communion in the Liturgy. We fast in order that we might not be judged as partaking unworthily through a lack of repentance. This is the second aspect of fasting made necessary by the Fall. Our safe re-entry into Eden is through the door of fasting.
These lessons, however, have to be relearned in every generation. Spiritual maturity is not a transferable asset. We all have to come to know God, to trust Him, to love Him, to serve Him, individually. God has children but no grandchildren. The historic choices that faced Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden face each one of us afresh in every generation. Will we obey and fast because we want to grow up into union with God, or, God forbid, are we sliding into hell because we are letting our passions get the better of us?
There are some in the church who think that fasting is just a matter of scanning a menu with tick boxes and saying: “Can eat that; can’t eat that” etc. Of course, if such a person fasted some benefit would still derive from that, but only because the appetites were being controlled. The full benefit would not be derived from such fasting because it would be an action without understanding and, therefore, insecure and capable of degrading into legalism and formalism. If we understand why we fast … to control the passions … then we can use fasting in our spiritual armoury to become a better Christian, to acquire the Spirit of holiness and wholeness, to be saved.
Fasting, therefore, has to be seen in the context of our spiritual growth as Christians and one of the means by which we regain the likeness of God which we lost in the Fall. If we fast with faith and wisdom and under the care of a spiritual guide then the fruits of the Spirit will grow stronger in our lives. We shall be able the more readily to curb our anger when it feeds on a selfish root; we shall develop a stronger will to serve God when temptations assail us; we shall live more sustainably on this Earth and not allow our passions to ravage its beauty. Some words from St. John Chrysostom in conclusion:
“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see a poor man, take pity on him.
If you see a friend being honoured, do not envy him.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?
May HE who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete the fast with humility, have mercy on us and save us.”