Pride and the Fasting Ego
Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself” [The Desert Fathers].
In the Bible, the Pharisee who fasted to be admired by others represents the antithesis of what a “fasting ego” should be. His intentions contained visible patterns of self-love that transformed spirituality into pride and arrogance.
A Pharisee who boasts “I fast twice a week,” engages in an endeavor lacking both reverence and spiritual worth. The effort remains grounded in vanity and the benefits of the fast are dissipated by the fleeting praise that he prefers – clearly, not the right intention.
How many of us display inherited traces of the Pharisee in our fasting. Jesus condemns this mentality, expressing strong disapproval and pronouncing judgment against it.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” [Luke 18:10-14].
It seems that, today, most consumers prefer cosmetic beauty to spiritual health. They embrace fads and innovations that enhance physical appearances with little regard to side effects or ultimate results.
How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshipping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity].
Physical health and cosmetics are now commercially intertwined. Our concerns for appearances and beauty have given rise to several billion dollar industries. The aisles of pharmacies and supermarkets are cluttered with products that make our bodies more physically attractive and sensually alluring to the world.
Fasting for cosmetic enhancements is not spiritual fasting. Our intentions cannot be to look better in a swim suit, to fit into the clothes of our youth, or to faddishly pursue the latest self-deluding lifestyle. Such short-lived concerns have little in common with spiritual growth.
However highly works may be estimated, they have their whole value more from the approbation of God than from their own dignity. For who will presume to plume himself before God on the righteousness of works, unless in so far as He approves of them? … their whole value consists in this, that by means of them we endeavor to manifest obedience to God. [John Calvin, Book 3:11, The Institutes of The Christian Religion].
When we diet to look better, we are not fasting for God. We are dieting to improved our ability to indulge in worldly activities. It’s a secular nutritional regimen. Our spirit remains shackled by ephemeral attachments, submerged under frivolous pursuits.
Not until we have become humble and teachable, standing in awe of God’s holiness and sovereignty . . . acknowledging our own littleness, distrusting our own thoughts, and willing to have our minds turned upside down, can divine wisdom become ours. [James I. (J. I.) Packer, Knowing God Devotional Journal].
Taming the Ego
When we truly fast spiritually, we become disinterested in the mundane. We adopt a disregard for social entanglements, and grow indifferent toward transient enticements. Instead of increasing our desires for more of this world, we gravitate toward detached reclusiveness and seclusion.
Fasting asserts the will against the appetite – the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. [C. S. Lewis].
Fasting is, indeed, a tool, a vehicle meant to increase God-consciousness. Awareness of the Divine is the goal. God alone is worthy of such exertion and perseverance. Our fasting is to please God and to come nearer to Him.
Penitential fasting is not meant to improve our external appearance. It is to help us recognize our Divine dependence, and increases our fear of displeasing God.
Man suffers from a monstrous swelling of the ego, because its egoistic extension isn’t a true growth, but a sickly inflation, which wants to encompass everybody and everything. It is produced by the convergence of all the passions; it is the manifestation of the work of all the spiritual bacteria in our ego. Fasting is the antidote against this pathological extension of our appetites and of our egotism. It is the humble return of the ego to itself, but by its transparence it sees God and is filled with a life consistent with God. [Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae].
True fasting tames our ego. As we stand empty and transparent before our Lord, the conceit that fed our pride fades into shameful memories. We shed the raiments of arrogance that adorned our pious facade. Dressed in humility, we begin to prepare our soul for God’s beneficence.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. [Proverbs 11:2 (NIV)].
As fasting feeds our spirit, we sublimate our thoughts and our intentions. We diminish or discard detrimental habits. Our attitude changes, as does our awareness of others around us. Both seen and unseen realities take new meaning.
May we tire ourselves with spiritual exercises, may our sweat be tears of repentance and may the weight we lose be the burdens of arrogance, selfishness and pride.
And turn not thy cheek away from people in [false] pride, and walk not haughtily on earth: for, behold, God does not love anyone who, out of self-conceit, acts in a boastful manner. [Quran 31:18].