Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and some thoughts on humility and fasting

Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. It came up quickly this year and I have only just fully realized that Great Lent begins in 3 weeks!

I have been spending some time thinking about fasting recently, and thinking more carefully about it than I have in the past. There are many reasons given for why we should fast

:: fasting is an important way to practice self-denial

:: fasting helps to simplify our lives so we can focus on what's important

:: fasting helps us to learn self-control

:: fasting helps us to prepare for the feast

:: fasting helps us learn to depend on God

:: Christ expects that His followers will fast (Matthew 6:16-18)

:: fasting is a wonderful way to practice obedience

All these things are good and they are all true. I think though, that all too often when the focus is on the good things to be gotten from fasting, it's easier (for me anyway) to get caught up in talking about the reasoning and the rules and the final "product", so to speak, and I forget the underlying reason behind all the explanations. Paying more attention to the benefits of fasting leads to a utilitarian approach that begins to calculate and speculate on the ins and outs and outward manifestations of the practice. It becomes all to easy to forget that the why behind fasting is much more important than the how, and this can lead to fasting becoming an end in itself, rather than a means to something else. It can become a burden and an imposition and a legalistic "requirement" that leads us into thinking that we can save ourselves by our own efforts.

The focus therefore, should be on the reason why we fast. Once we truly understand why we are doing it, then the details become less burdensome and indeed can be welcomed rather than cast aside as too strict .

So, why do we fast?

When we are fasting we are deliberately choosing Christ over the other things that can take our attention away from Him. We are purposefully pursuing relationship with Him and by choosing to abstain from the foods we've been asked to abstain from, we can give more of our attention to being with Him.

When we fast we are more free to pray. Fasting is not a burden; it is a freedom.

What freedom to live in prayer and to be closer to God! What joy! What a wonderful gift God has given through His Church, when He asks us to fast. He wants to be in relationship with us and so He makes it possible. He provides the opportunity, and if we somehow forget, or refuse or simply are unaware of the fasts, He has been gracious enough to give us plenty more opportunities throughout the entire year. But if we know, there's no reason to wait until next time. Why not take advantage of His gift now? Why put off being nearer to Him whom we claim to hold dearest of all?

One of the problems with forgetting the why behind the fast and concentrating on the how, is that this can make us miss out on the crucial element that is needed during the fast: humility.

Humility involves allowing oneself to be open to receiving what comes. It is a state of being that is aware of one's fallen-ness and brokenness and that is present in reality - right here, right now. The reason that humility is so important is not just because it's a virtue, but because the awareness of who we are and Whose we are is what allows God's grace to come to us.

God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.    

Humility involves not only being aware of who we are, with all our flaws, but it also involves being open to what God allows in our lives. It is laying oneself down to be trodden upon and trampled, allowing the soil of the heart to be tilled so that it can bring forth fruit.

Fasting does not make any one of us more deserving of God's grace than another. It does not make any of us more virtuous or more pious or more holy. Fasting, done with a spirit of humility, is a way for us to be raised up, not by our efforts, but by God's grace, to the heights of heaven. Humble fasting is a way for us to open the door of our hearts, so the the King might enter in.


  1. I have been thinking a lot about fasting, and this post is very helpful...This is my first Lent being Orthodox, and your thoughts have given me much to think about...Thanks!

    1. I'm glad it's helpful, Tahara. May your first Lent as an Orthodox Christian be a blessed one!


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