Nineteen Reasons for Fasting
Fasting is primarily an act of obedience by which we seek to please God, and seek Divine awareness. We are asked to fast in every major religion. Scriptures, prophets, scholars, theologians, sages and saints all call us to fast, proclaiming the usefulness, benefits and desirability of fasting.
Since we believe God requires fasting of us, we fast. However, the particular reasons for fasting are many and varied. Our fast is a personal exercise, so we could find a different reason for each individual fast.
While extolling the motivational aspects of fasting, we must also note its limitations. Fasting is of little value for getting ahead in the world — if getting ahead means material accumulation, social status or intellectual recognition.
Moreover, fasting is not for the sick, weak or injured. We need nourishment to regain our health during and after an illness or operation. When the body needs strength to recover or convalesce, fasting is not recommended.
Below is a summary of nineteen common reasons people fast. In addition, each heading links to specific pages which contain related quotes, and which further discuss the particular reason for fasting.
The Scriptures of Hindus (Mahabharata), Jews (Torah), Christians (Gospels) and Muslims (Qur’an) all prescribe fasting as a religious practice. The Buddhists “middle way,” is a path between extreme abstinence and depraved gluttony, best described as restrained eating (cf. Dhammapada).
Perhaps the most esoteric and wondrous purpose for fasting is to come nearer to God. Though our stomachs and bank accounts may be full, we can still experience an insatiable spiritual appetite that cannot be quenched by transient pleasures and possessions.
Something in the process of spiritual abstinence elevates our consciousness, carrying us into closer relationship with God, and providing an extraordinarily satisfying encounter with Divine Reality.
Excessive indulgence in worldly pleasures increases irreverence, frivolity, disrespect of sacred matters, and forgetfulness of our deeper aspirations. At times, we need to remove such distraction to regain our spiritual equilibrium.
Fasting enhances seclusion and spiritual silence, helping us to disregards social conventions and cultural contrivances. It awakens spiritual sentries and alerts us to the rising volume of worldly noise..
Teshuvah in Hebrew and tauba in Arabic describe repentance as “turning” or “returning.” The words suggest that we have turned from a path of error back to the path of faith. The change of direction rejects a sinful reality and adopts the sacred path of obeying God.
Fasting complements repentance by helping us recognize our deviation and offering a return to right conduct. It prods guilt, increases awareness of errors and manifests sincere regret, sorrow, and remorse — signs of true repentance.
Fasting helps us make solemn and humble appeals to God. Whether during disasters, prolonged crises or eminent danger, fasting acts to strengthen worship, facilitating access into the Divine Reality.
Fasting transcends physical and intellectual barriers, allowing glimpses of God’s mercy and power. As Tertullian noted, if practiced with the right intention, fasting makes one “a friend of God.”
Fasting lets our body and mind feel the sorrow of our soul. When we cry, our tears express of physical state. When we fast, our entire body symbolically cries.
Our fasts and our tears evince our lament, demonstrating our sorrow and grief, as well as our sympathy and compassion for the misfortunes of others.
At any major crossroad, before a critical decision, when discernment, clear thinking and wise judgment are required, fasting is an indispensable companion. When worldly involvement clouds our judgment and the daily stress of physical existence blurs our spiritual awareness, abstinence provides a change in perspective.
After the fast, we should feel ready to act, to engage in a better directed life. Life’s purpose should be clarified and our intentions to act righteously affirmed.
A spiritual fast is not fully utilized unless a significant portion of our time is spent in prayer and supplication. Fasting reinforces our efforts to connect to the Ultimate Reality, and helps us focus on what is important in our life.
During periods of spiritual dryness, when secular concerns blemish our prayers, fasting intensifies the solemnity and sacredness of our thoughts and imbues our prayers with piety and God-consciousness.
The therapeutic elements of a fast complement its spiritual benefits. Depending on the intention, a fast may be considered an act of worship, a cosmetic endeavor, or even a hypocritical pretense.
Material existence often requires continuous immersion in stressful environments that threaten our health. We can find relief from such harmful conditions by removing the source of much of our frenzy: food.
Fasting helps us take back control of our mind. When our intellect and our physical desires appear more important than our spiritual affirmations and take higher priority, it is time to fast. Through abstinence, we control physical appetites and gain strength to dominate our rebellious intellect.
As our fasting progresses, we rearrange our priorities. What seemed essential before, now appears inconsequential in light of our changed outlook.
Lust for sex, wealth, power and fame often grow beyond our control. Our unrestrained lusts are never quenched, not even when we consume beyond our capacity.
No amount of indulgence can satisfy us, so we add new depravities, trying to attain an ephemeral gratification that always eludes us. It then becomes imperative that we quell our emotions. How do we do that? We can start by fasting.
Fasting removes the hardened crust of pride and arrogance surrounding our bloated thoughts. The frailty of the body is spotlighted by fasting, as we perceive the true nature of our physical condition.
When we fast, our reliance on bodily strength and physical well-being is diminished. We become aware of our weaknesses, our misconceived vigor and miscalculated powers.
Spiritually, a catharsis is an emptying of negative emotions to cleanse away guilt, to discard distorted thoughts and to reunite us with the Divine.
The penitential fast offers an emotional release, particularly when we need psychological and intellectual cleansing. It physically expresses remorse for culpability and acknowledges complicity.
14. Oaths and Vows
Fasting normally begins with an oath or vow, either directly or indirectly expressed. We must first form an intention to shun food and drink. We then become spiritually bound to hold fast to this vow or promise to God.
Thus, fasting represents the exertion of spiritual effort. As such, it can be offered in exchange or satisfaction of some other religious obligation.
Religious ceremonies and sacraments demand external and internal purity. Rites of purification use fasting to hold apart or separate a person for the purpose of spiritual cleansing. A fast prepares both the candidate and the officiator for important sacraments.
The Sanskrit word for fasting, upvas, literally means sitting near or close to God. This represents a purified and elevated condition which allows connection to the Absolute.
Habituation refers to weakened responses to continually repeated stimuli. Consciously and unconsciously, we become addicted to many activities, routines and habits that we perform like robots, having long forgotten their origins or purpose.
Fasting breaks the reenactment of habitual rituals to which we may be physically and intellectually shackled. A break in our eating patterns can lead to significant lifestyle changes.
We seclude the holy from the profane, from pollution and corruption. Under some circumstances, the best protection against spiritual contamination of a community is self-imposed isolation.
Communal fasting protects against the debilitating influences of external cultural and societal prompts. It blocks alien pollutants by buttressing the spiritual wall around the entire community.
Fasting, self-denial and abstinence are essential spiritual exercises in the gymnasium of the ascetic. In our effort to please God, we enter into a struggle against our animal nature. The goal is to subordinate our lower appetites to achieve complete submission to the will of God.
Fasting offers simulated privation. It is a controlled adversity that imitates the process of real-world anxiety and grief. It transforms mere thoughts and words into action. Denial of the body becomes a testament to earnestness, a witness to sincerity.
As we have seen, fasting is a multi-purpose balm prescribed for our soul. From frivolity to solemnity, from spiritual dryness to heartfelt sincerity, from fear to tranquility, from pride to humility, fasting carries us ever nearer to the Divine Reality.
However, it is God’s promised reward that holds the greatest value. It is the expressed Divine approval of our humble efforts that motivates us to fast. God alone is the object of our spiritual fasting and only God can reward us for it.
May God guide us from our secular sobriety into sacred intoxication. May He grant us the willpower to discard selfish impediments hindering and obstructing our spiritual awareness. And, may God allow us to enter His Divine Presence.