What is an Acceptable Fast?
By Timothy Copple
In the first article, "Why Fast?" we looked at the purpose and end of fasting. Now we are going to dwell on the way in which fasting helps us to attain spiritual strength and to draw near to God so that we will be able to identify if we are on the right path or not towards this goal.
The key passage in Scripture to understand what is an acceptable fast to the Lord is found in Isaiah 58. It is beneficial to read this whole chapter. I'll intersperse comments through it.
Isa 58:1-14 ASV Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and declare unto my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. (2) Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways: as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near unto God.
God here indicates that despite the fact that they seem to indicate a desire to draw unto Him and to delight in the Law, they still have sins to deal with. They have sins which are not being dealt with. What is Isaiah going to say these sins are?
(3) Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find your own pleasure, and exact all your labors. (4) Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye fast not this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high.
Notice, they fasted, but their fast did not prevent them from doing anything different than they otherwise did. They still sought out their own pleasures and required work of themselves and others. The result of their fast resulted in strife and contention instead of drawing near to God. These are the results of a non-productive fast and if you see these signs, it is an indication to you to correct coarse. Isaiah now goes on to give God's message of what the appropriate fast results in.
(5) Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Jehovah?
Note, God is not saying that these are not aspects of a fast, but they are only external aspects. They do not define what a fast does and are not evidence that a true fast has taken place. He is not saying, "Don't do these things, do these instead." He is saying that you cannot judge whether a beneficial fast is taking place based purely upon these outward activities that generally accompany a fast. To put it another way, if this is all you have accomplished, you have not fasted.
(6) Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? (7) Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Here are the qualities which a true fast gives evidence of. If your fast results in what we generally refer to as alms giving, if it results in ministering to others in greater ways then you are accomplishing the results of a true fast.
(8) Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of Jehovah shall by thy rearward. (9) Then shalt thou call, and Jehovah will answer; thou shalt cry, and he will say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedly; (10) and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul: then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thine obscurity be as the noonday; (11) and Jehovah will guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in dry places, and make strong thy bones; and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. (12) And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places; thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
We see here the goal of fasting which we indicated before being accomplished. One becomes united to the presence of God within themselves so that God works through them to bring unity and healing to those around instead of division and strife.
(13) If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, and the holy of Jehovah honorable; and shalt honor it, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: (14) then shalt thou delight thyself in Jehovah; and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it.
We see here two parts to a true fast. One is abstinence, the other love. We abstain from our own pleasures. This is where fasting from food comes into play. It is to aid us in the conflict with our passions and the desire for pleasure and sin. St. Leo the Great has three homilies on the topic of fasting in the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, and has this to say:
Hence although the inner man be now reborn in Christ and rescued from the bonds of captivity, it has unceasing conflicts with the flesh, and has to endure resistance in seeking to restrain vain desires.
(St. Leo the Great, "On the Fast of the Seventh Month," Sermon 90)
And what turning away from sin can there be, where ruler and ruled alike are liable to the same passions? Rightly does the Lord exclaim that "the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak."
This abstaining is for the purpose of helping us to abstain from sin by putting the spirit in control of the flesh. In so doing, that dark glass is cleaned, purity of soul results so that we can experience the presence of God in greater ways, uniting to Him unobstructed from sin.
And hence, since the year's course has brought back the seventh month to us, I feel certain that your minds are spiritually aroused to keep the solemn fast; since you have learnt by experience how well this preparation purifies both the outer and the inner parts of men, so that by abstaining from the lawful, resistance becomes easier to the unlawful.
(St. Leo the Great , "On the Fast of the Seventh Month," Sermon 91)
Note: the seventh month is speaking of the Lenten fast, which tends to start during March which is seven months from September, the beginning of the liturgical year.
However, there is another part to a fast than abstinence as we have seen above.
But do not limit your plan of abstinence, dearly-beloved, to the mortifying of the body, or to the lessening of food alone. For the greater advantages of this virtue belong to that chastity of the soul, which not only crushes the lusts of the flesh, but also despises the vanities of worldly wisdom, as the Apostle says, "take heed that no one deceive you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men."
(St. Leo the Great , "On the Fast of the Seventh Month," Sermon 91)
Rather, St. Leo points us to the other side of a true fast, what we love.
For there are two loves from which proceed all wishes, as different in quality as they are different in their sources. For the reasonable soul, which cannot exist without love, is the lover either of God or the world. In the love of God there is no excess, but in the love of the world all is hurtful. And therefore we must cling inseparably to the eternal treasures, but things temporal we must use like passers-by, that as we are sojourners hastening to return to our own land, all the good things of this world which meet us may be as aids on the way, not snares to detain us….But as the world attracts us with its appearance, and abundance and variety, it is not easy to turn away from it unless in the beauty of things visible the Creator rather than the creature is loved…
(St. Leo the Great, "On the Fast of the Seventh Month," Sermon 90)
Note here in what manner St. Leo says we are to make use of this world…as an icon or image that points us to God. If they instead detain us so that our attention and desire stays fixed on them, then we have fallen into the love of the world. If, however, we see these things as means to reach and love God through them, then they become beneficial. They must be used, not loved in and of themselves for our own pleasure.
Yet, it is love for God and what God loves that changes the abstinence of fasting from simply fighting against the fleshly desires to a real peace in God so that such fleshly desires no longer drive us. It is the victory of the spirit over the flesh and the flesh submitting. Fasting aids us in getting there, but it is God who gives the increase unto a true desire for God as we offer Him our meager abstinence in humility so that He can reach down and pull us into that perfect peace in the love of God. St. John Cassin, contrasting abstinence with chastity puts it this way:
For this reason perfect chastity is distinguished from the toilsome rudiments of abstinence by its perpetual tranquility. For this is the consummation of true chastity, which does not fight the movements of carnal lust but detests them with utter horror, maintaining a constant and inviolable purity for itself. This can be nothing else than holiness. But, once the flesh has stopped lusting against the spirit and has given in to its desires and to virtue, they begin to be mutually joined to one another by a most stable peace, and they swell as 'brothers in unity,' according to the words of the psalmist. They possess the blessing promised by the Lord, about which he says: 'If two of you agree on earth about asking for anything whatsoever, it shall be done for them by my Father who is in heaven.' Whoever, therefore, passes beyond the degree of that spiritual Jacob-that is, the supplanter-will mount by the steady inclination of his heart from the struggle of abstinence and from the supplanting of the vices to the dignity of Israel, once the nerve in his thigh has been numbed.
(St. John Cassin, 12th Conference, "On Chastity")
This is why the Church prescribes that during Lent, we not only fast from food, we also fast from sin, fast from undue attention to ourselves and our wants and desires, and rather turn the focus on something that Jesus has commanded us to do all the time:
Mat 22:37-40 ASV And he said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (40) On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.
So we add in not just abstaining from food, but also a love of God through prayer privately and in extra Church services, as well as loving God through attention to the meeting the needs of others in various ways. In these two ways we are drawn unto God for in prayer we can deal with our sins and know God's mercy and forgiveness, and in meeting the needs of others we are ministering to Christ Himself. This is the work of love for God of which a true fast consist.
This state of mind, therefore, beloved, from which earthly love is excluded, is strengthened by the habit of well-doing, because the conscience must needs be delighted at good deeds, and do willingly what it rejoices to have done. Thus it is that fast are kept, alms freely given, justice maintained, frequent prayer resorted to, and the desires of individuals become the common wish of all.
(St. Leo the Great, "On the Fast of the Seventh Month," Homily 90)
We should also add that accompanying the abstinence of food in a fast is prayer. Through these prayers we draw to God by focusing on repentance of our sins and reliance upon God's mercy. We see this is really emphasized during Great Lent in the services, beginning with the Canon of St. Andrew in the first week. This is the fast of the spirit and mind as well as the fast of the body which St. Leo refers to in the following passage:
For it is at all times suitable and in agreement with both the New and Old Testament, that the Divine Mercy should be sought with chastisement both of mind and body, because nothing is more effectual in prevailing with God than that a man should judge himself and never cease from asking pardon, knowing that he is never without fault. For human nature has this flaw in itself, not planted there by the Creator but contracted by the transgressor, and transmitted to his posterity by the law of generations, so that from the corruptible body springs that which may corrupt the soul also.
So, with fasting comes a greater focus on our sins and repentance of them as well as the greatness of God's mercy which we trust in daily for our salvation. All through the Scriptures we read that the way to approach God is through humility and repentance and that will draw Him to us.
2Ch 7:14 ASV if my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
This is why before we take the Eucharist, we come having fasted in the manner we describe above. That is why in Scriptures you see people who wish to approach God do so by fasting, repentance, prayer and giving of themselves.
Some may wonder why the Church prescribes these fasting times. To some, that would appear to promote legalistic observance if we are told to fast at certain times. While certainly some people do observe it legalistically, it is better that the Church promote times of corporate fasting and prayer for if we are left to do so on an individual basis, Satan has an easier time defeating us. We forget if not reminded and our flesh would make us desire not to fast at all if we were not instructed to. Primarily, however, there is great power in everyone fasting together as one Body of Christ. St. Leo puts it this way:
To this unconquerable strength of unity, therefore, dearly-beloved, we are even now invited by the solemn Fast of the Seventh Month, that we may lift our souls to the Lord free from worldly cares and earthly concerns. And because, always needful as this endeavor is, we cannot all adhere to it perpetually, and often through human frailty we fall back from higher things to the things of earth, let us at least on these days, which are most healthfully ordained for our correction, withdraw ourselves from worldly occupations, and steal a little time for promoting our eternal welfare. "For in many things," as it is written, "we all stumble." And though by the daily gift of God we be cleansed from divers pollutions, yet there cling to unwary souls for the most part darker stains, which need a greater care to wash them out, a stronger effort to destroy them. And the fullest abolition of sins is obtained when the whole Church offers up one prayer and one confession. For it the Lord has promised fulfillment of all they shall ask, to the holy and devout agreement of two or three, what shall be denied to many thousands of the people who unite in one act of worship, and with one breath make their common supplications?
(St. Leo the Great, "On the Fast of the Seventh Month," Sermon 88)
The result when we have attained the true fast is as the prophet Zechariah says:
Zec 8:19 ASV Thus saith Jehovah of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love truth and peace.
The result of the true fast is a drawing to greater unity to God and each other. Seek then the true fast this coming Great Lent and at other times we are called to fast together.
"Great Lent" by Fr. Alexander Schmemenn
"On Pentecost" Conference 21 by St. John Cassin
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