Fasting for Discipline, for Protection against Lust and for Humility
Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself. [St. Augustine, “On Prayer and Fasting,” Quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas].
Let lawful fasting have three ends: for we use the same either to bring down the flesh, or that we may be better prepared to prayers, or that it may be a testimony of our humility before God. The first end is fitter for private fasting, the second is common to both, and the third likewise. [John Calvin].
10. Discipline & Self-control
Fasting helps us take back control of our life. When our intellect and our physical desires appear more important than our spiritual affirmations and take higher priority, it is time to fast. Through fasting, we control physical appetites and gain strength to dominate our rebellious intellect.
A man who eats too much cannot strive against laziness, while a gluttonous and idle man will never be able to contend with sexual lust. Therefore, according to all moral teachings, the effort towards self-control commences with a struggle against the lust of gluttony—commences with fasting . . . And yet, just as the first condition of a good life is self-control, so the first condition of a life of self-control is fasting. [ The First Step, The Works of Leo Tolstoy].
As our fasting progresses, we rearrange our priorities. What seemed essential before, now appears inconsequential in light of our changed perspective. Fasting promotes our spiritual thoughts by releasing them from the domination of worldly desires.
. . . fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, quoted in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald S. Whitney].
When our lower self becomes rebellious, dominating our attitude and perverting our personality, we must struggle to regain control. We need to revitalize our devotions and sanctify our daily life. Fasting is the prod.
Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. [The Rule of St. Benedict, The Instruments of Good Works, Ch. 4].
We can easily become accustomed to comforts, and take God’s blessings for granted. We greedily consume our good fortune without appreciating it. Foolishly, we assume that we are owed our blessed affluence. Such spiritual ignorance and intellectual arrogance need the benefits of a fast.
Don’t spoil and fatten the ego by giving it the pleasurable experiences it desires, for this will only give it more power over you . . . Because when the “stomach” of the ‘commanding self’ [nafsul-amara] is filled and becomes comfortable, it becomes increasingly insolent and rebellious. Therefore, it is necessary to limit it to bran bread so that this ‘commanding self’ does not become strong, insolent, and rebellious. [Anqaravi, Commentary on Rumi’s, The Prince and the Christian Ascetic (Mathnawi V: 3480)]
To paraphrase Newton’s first law of motion, a body continues to do whatever it happens to be doing, unless a force is exerted upon it to make it change. Fasting offers such a force.
The pure heart is the best mirror for the reflection of Truth. So all these disciplines are for the purification of the heart. As soon as it is pure, all truths flash upon it in a minute. [Sri Sathya Sai Baba].
11. Protection against Lust
In our members there is a slumbering inclination toward desire, which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power desire seizes mastery … a secret, smouldering fire is kindled…. At this moment God is quite unreal to us, he loses all reality, and only desire for the creature is real … Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God … The lust thus aroused envelops the mind and will of man in deepest darkness. The powers of clear discrimination and of decision are taken from us. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall Temptation: Two Biblical Studies, p. 132].
Lust for sex, wealth, power, fame and glory often grow beyond our control. It then becomes imperative that we quell the emotions they arouse. How do we do that? We can start by fasting.
He who can afford to marry should marry, because it will help him refrain from looking at other women, and . . . save his private parts from committing illegal sexual relation; and he who cannot afford to marry is advised to fast, as fasting will diminish his sexual power. [Sahih Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 129].
Our social environment, with its pastimes, entertainment and glitter, entices our appetites and prods passions. They often overwhelm our spiritual convictions leaving us groping for direction. We forget our basic beliefs while satisfying transient desires.
There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; even in the [supernal] pleasures [of the devas], he finds no satisfaction; the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires [The Dhammapada, Chapter 14:186].
Our appetites cannot be fully satisfied by food, pastimes or entertainment. If we continue indulging in a frivolous lifestyle, our mind becomes numb, a helpless observer that offers little resistance to wrongdoing.
Listen and hear the word of warning: “Wide and spacious is the road of gluttony. It leads to the catastrophe of fornication, and there are many who travel that way. The gate is narrow and the way of fasting is hard, that way leading to the life of purity, and there are few to make the journey . . . Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams.” [The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, p. 167].
Reckless abandonment to physical pleasures produces an insatiable appetite for more and more. We continually increase the dosage, augment the volume and heighten the excitement. The results overwhelm us, destroying our restraint and enslaving us to our cravings.
Fasting may be difficult, but it provides the body with energy, activity, and resistance … Human life is a composite of two distinct powers: the spirit and the flesh. Although they sometimes act in harmony, conflict is more usual – conflict in which one defeats the other. If bodily lusts are indulged, the spirit grows more powerless as it becomes more obedient to those lusts. If one can control the desires of the flesh, place the heart (the seat of spiritual intellect) over reason, and oppose bodily lusts, he or she acquires eternity. [Fethullah Gülen].
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.
For by prayer we seek to propitiate God, by fasting we extinguish the lusts of the flesh, by alms we redeem our sins: and at the same time God’s image is throughout renewed in us, if we are always ready to praise Him, unfailingly intent on our purification and unceasingly active in cherishing our neighbour. This threefold round of duty, dearly beloved, brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God’s image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind. [St. Leo, the Great].
Our intellect becomes an insensitive bystander, observing existence without true feelings, scavenging among the wretched, wallowing in arrogant indifference.
Hast thou seen him who chooseth for his god his own lust? Wouldst thou then be guardian over him? Or deemest thou that most of them hear or understand? They are but as the cattle – nay, but they are farther astray? [Quran 25:43-44].
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. [Deuteronomy 8:2-3 (NIV)].
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. This humbles us.
There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God . . . [Ezra 8:21].
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.
. . . I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. [Psalm 35:13].
Abstinence melts our hubris, dissolves the rust lining our heart and opens our consciousness to piety.
A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, that it may not wanton, or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him. [John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion].
Fasting adds personal meaning to the rituals and liturgy of religion. It supplies an inner dimension to our faith, providing the mind with transcending cognition that penetrates into the heart.
Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilization of life and love. [Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 100].
Sincere fasting conquers our pride. Empty and naked before God, we have no arrogance to nourish our ego. The costume of piety that adorned our public image vanishes into remorse. The fast has made the dress of humility fit us well.
Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God. [The Book of Mormon, Helaman 3:35].