Fasting Without Force


The following is taken from Wounded by Love: the Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios 

You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love – the adoration of Christ which cannot be expressed, which is beyond expression, which is beyond… And such a person attempts to undertake ascetic exercises and to do things to cause himself to suffer for the love of God.

No monk became holy without ascetic exercises. No one can ascend to spirituality without exercising himself. These things must be done. Ascetic exercises are such things as prostrations, vigils and so on, but done without force. All are done with joy. What is important is not the prostrations we will make or the prayers, but the act of self-giving, the passionate love for Christ and for spiritual things. There are many people who do these things, not for God, but for the sake of exercise, in order to reap physical benefit. But spiritual people do them in order to reap spiritual benefit; they do them for God. At the same time, however, the body is greatly benefited and doesn’t fall ill. Many good things flow from them.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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33 responses to “Fasting Without Force”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Since I’m an old crumudgeon, I have a difficult time with “loving God”, it is a little too vague for me. I can just begin to maybe love Jesus, and other people. It seems easier for me to love the Church somehow unless I’m really delusional. So Father, I would find it helpful if you could comment on what it means to love God.

  2. Scott M Avatar
    Scott M

    It seems to me that much of what Jesus taught and lived incorporated the idea that you love God as you love your fellow human being. And as you learn to love others, you love God more.

  3. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    I’m sure Father will have wise words for you. For me to love God means to adore Christ both in worship of Him in Church and by prayer and in loving service to others for His sake, especially those who cannot return our love. It is not something I work up within myself, but an answering love in response to the revelation of the depth, breadth, height and width of God’s love and condescension in the Incarnation which comes through prayerful contemplation of the same–and through participation in the mysteries. Sometimes, in loving God (the Trinity in Christ) all I have to offer Him is my need–but that, too, is love, and it is enough for Him if it is all I have.

  4. Seraphim Avatar

    “Ascetic exercises are such things as prostrations, vigils and so on, but done without force. All are done with joy.”

    I don’t understand what is meant by “force” in this context. If I’m tired and would rather go to bed than pray, isn’t that “forcing” it? But at the same time, it seems to me that it’s beneficial to my spirit to deny myself sleep and first pray, for in that way I would learn discipline. I have no sources, but I’m nearly certain I’ve seen in various Orthodox books that we must pray even when we don’t want to.

    I think I’m missing the point here!

  5. James Avatar

    I too would appreciate wisdom on this. Often I am physically exhausted after a day that, as far as I can discern, was properly spent. It comes time to pray Compline, but I find all I can do is sit and tell God I’m tired. I’m never sure how hard to push myself, or even if that is what the Lord wants me to do.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    You’ll definitely find fathers of the Church who would counsel a more forceful approach than Elder Porphyrios. I find him interesting in his approach. Actually, St. Seraphim of Sarov had a “little rule” of prayer for his nuns that was extremely short. He also insisted upon a much lighter regimen of asceticism for them than is common.

    Holy Elders differ in such matters – not because they are giving their own opinion, but because they are speaking from their own divine experience.

    One great Elder in the Chezk (spelling?) Republic was approached by some priests after the fall of the communist regime. Many people were coming back to Church. The question was, “Should we be strict or lenient.” For on the one hand they knew little, thus it seemed that strict would be good, while on the other, they were new and that made leniency look correct.”

    The Elder replied, “Do either one. But whatever you do, only do it for their salvation.”

    You’ll find this difference among priests. Each must answer to God for how he ministered to his flock.

    I raised my children one way (and they have turned out well). Someone else will raise their children in another and it will turn out well. But we have to be who we are. If you find the leniency of Elder Porphyrios (or Fr. Stephen) to be too lenient and not helpful, then listen to your confessor or local priest or someone who is not so lenient. Different people need different things.

    But whatever you do – do it for the love of God. If you force yourself just because you want to obey a rule there is a certain merit in it – but it is of far more value if you force yourself because you love God. I have forced myself to do many things because I love my wife, my children, my congregation, and sometimes I have forced myself because I love God.

    It is this love of God that Elder Porphyrios has the most to say about – and is the driving point of his teachings.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course these are things to discuss with your confessor. When I am too tired at night (or sometimes in the morning) and cannot complete my rule, I say the little rule of St. Seraphim: The Creed, The Our Father, and the Rejoice, O Virgin.

    It’s short. But it is better than not praying because you are too tired to do a long prayer.

  8. Carl Avatar

    It seems to me that much of what Jesus taught and lived incorporated the idea that you love God as you love your fellow human being. And as you learn to love others, you love God more.

    Sounds right to me.

    “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”

    —I John 4:20

  9. Eric Avatar

    At first read – the scripture this conversation brings to mind is found in Mt. 10:38-39, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

    I love what Father Stephen said – comparing our love for God with the love we show our wife, children, family and good friends. God is constantly referring to His love for us by comparing it to a husband / wife relationship. It is “easy” to understand what it means to love God – just gaze at some of your closest earthly relationships.

    I think the question is…why don’t we love God, take time for God, include God as we do in so many of our earthly relationships. It is hard to admit – that I “love” things / my life more than God. I do love God…sometimes…when it is easy and scheduled. I think, if love is the optimal, there are ways we can position ourselves to deny what comes natural (our selfish ways) and learn to love God – to become one with Christ. Christ alluded to one way – take up our cross and follow HIM. Jesus also said that when the bridegroom left his followers would fast. Fasting is a great way to humble ourselves, deny our flesh and take that time we would normally eat and do things like pray.

    None of this stuff is easy – but we (I) have been taking the easy road for too long. It is time for us to take the time and learn to really love Him who has redeemed us.

    Just some thoughts during this Lenten season.


  10. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    The icon of the Holy Trinity sitting in front of Abraham and Sarah helps me to focus in prayer on the loving relationships that I can strive for when I sometimes fail miserably.

  11. AR Avatar

    This discussion on leniency vs. strictness is really good for me to read. My own church and priest are so very very gentle, which is exactly what I need as a “spiritual refugee” from a duty-oriented, self-punishing background. But at times I’ve seen other Orthodox churches and priests who are more demanding and even harsh and I’ve assumed that must be destructive. Maybe some are, but it’s good to see that once again the “true church,” not to mention the Lord himself, escape my circumscriptions and definitions and prove to be bigger than the ideas in which they appear to me.


  12. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Regarding not “forcing” the disciplines, I once heard an analogy that was helpful. Jesus often spoke of spiritual growth in agrarian terms. Does a plant “force” itself to grow–or grow by sheer willpower? The analogy is limited, because being made in God’s image our free will comes into the picture in a way that it does not for plants. The lesson for me is that I can only choose how I respond to the grace of the Holy Spirit–those factors that God has providentially surrounded me with and equipped me with for my spiritual formation. The Holy Spirit produces the growth, and He also arranges those many aspects of my circumstances that are outside of my control (and this includes everything that is now past tense for me). If I am becoming agitated, bitter, and angry with myself in my own limitations (of time, energy, expertise, knowledge, etc.) or frustrated with my circumstances (including the people in my life) and how they intrude on my opportunities for focused prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, etc., then perhaps I’m “forcing” beyond the grace that has been given me right now. Let me use my “failure” or “laxity” in discipline as an opportunity to cultivate a humble spirit before God and a gentle, understanding spirit with others and another reminder that the only hope for any of us is to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God. Let me joyfully receive the “economy” of Christ in His Church, His condescension to my weakness.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    I grew up surrounded by Southern fundamentalism and in a relatively rural culture that was strict and punishing (corporal-style). I have not cared for fundamentalisms of any sort at any point in my life. I have not found it to be life-giving. I trust that God works in various ways with various people – but I suppose I tend to read in the stream of the Tradition that produced St. Silouan, and have probably had more direct contact with those whose Orthodoxy was directly formed in that stream. What I like about it is that it looks past questions of leniency or strictness to see the heart and focuses there. The heart may need one thing or the other – God knows. But as a priest I believe my ministry is to pay close attention to the heart and apply the canons, etc., for the salvation that is first manifested there in the heart.

    To quote St. Seraphim of Sarov, “You cannot be too gentle, too kind.”

  14. AR Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I didn’t find fundamentalism life-giving either. I believe it’s a textualistic way of thinking that can attach itself to any religion. So I know that much as I may seem to have revolted against it, I still have to guard myself lest I create a sort of Orthodox Fundamentalism for myself and my child.

    I do feel that what I read here (along with the reading recommendations) counteracts that tendency. If one does, as you say, apply the rules “for salvation” rather than out of consideration for either strictness or leniency…that rings true to Christ’s words about the Sabbath: that it was made for man and not man for it. I also recall that He described himself as “gentle and humble in heart.”

    Again, thank you.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    It was just this gentleness that probably allowed the barriers between myself and Orthodoxy to come down in the end. There are many Orthodox things to be read and I read them all. I had no doubt of the truth of Orthodoxy, but the spirit I encountered in some people and writings gave me pause. It was the kindness the majority of Orthodox that I met – clergy and laity – across jurisdictions – when we began our “living” examination of Orthodoxy (quit reading so much and started visiting churches) that reassured me of the true yoke of Christ (Matt. 11:29-30 “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and
    lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    Those have always been among my favorite sayings of Christ – one which should be remembered when we are doing anything in His name.

  16. Tyler Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    Maybe this will help:

    Further on Yanovsky writes [concerning St. Herman], “Once the Elder [St. Herman] was invited aboard a frigate which came from St Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. In the company of this group sat a monk of a hermitage, small in stature and wearing very old clothes. All these educated conversationalists were placed in such a position by his wise talks that they did not know how to answer him. The Captain himself used to say, ‘We were lost for an answer before him.’

    “Father Herman gave them all one general question: ‘Gentlemen, What do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered … Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘It is not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion – that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’ He then continued, ‘Would you not say, Is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the Very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men? Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’ ”

    All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?” “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “if we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they had not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” concluded the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!” Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives.

  17. Tyler Avatar

    Btw, that was taken from the OCA website’s section called “Glorification of the Venerable Herman of Alaska, Wonderworker of All America.”

    I happened to read your post and then read this on St. Herman and thought it might help.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    I well understand that “loving God” can seem vague and would agree that “loving Jesus” may be where we start. He, indeed, is the revelation of God to us. Christ said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” I think, for myself, I begin with understanding that God is good and see that manifested and revealed in its fullness in Christ. The more clearly I see that He is good, the more I love Him.

  19. artisticmisfit Avatar

    I looked at this yesterday and refrained from commenting. Somebody once criticized me for having a forceful personality, a bishop. So, what is the proper use of force in the church? What of the violence used to seize the kingdom of heaven?

  20. Margaret Avatar

    I find the prayer of Jesus found in Chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel to be the beginning for me of love for Christ. This is to say that I believe this is when God pointed out to me a love that was already there by causing me to see His love for His friends and for humanity. (This occurred most starkly during a Maundy Thursday service in the Anglican Communion. This great love has been continually brought to my mind since attending Orthodox services.)

    When I try to love those around me as Christ would have me to, I often find this difficult. However, I have been very blessed when I try to love Christ first and then He seems to point out to me the evidence of Himself in those around me, naturally leading to a great love beyond my human capabilities.

    Unfortunately I do not rest in this love, but become too involved in the worldly, material, emotional things. Encouragement of ascetic practice is greatly appreciated. Thank you for this post!

  21. AR Avatar

    I agree, Margaret. I’ve long believed that there is no sense in which our thoughts and affections can be orthodoxy or “right” unless they reflect in their structure the structure of reality. That is, just as the Holy Trinity is the spring and well from which all else flows, so the knowledge of the Trinity must be the spring and well of our thoughts and desires. I don’t think there is any true love that I can legitimately have for creatures that doesn’t flow from a love of God. To climb up the other way – to try to reach God by starting with creatures, will take us as far as Plato and no further. Again, in my understanding.

    At the same time I suspect that we often possess some love of God that we are not aware of because we cannot truly view our own deepest hearts at a conscious level. I think any time we embrace, choose, or do something because it is good, or because we think that God would prefer it, that is a love for God or the beginning of a love for God. Even when we see the beauty of Christ’s love as you so wonderfully expressed, it is because “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” As C.S. Lewis said, God will look to every soul like its first love, because He IS its first love.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Artistic Misfit,

    I think when done with joy and out of love we can indeed be forceful (if it is God we are pursuing). I think the Elder is speaking of misdirected force, which is what we commonly encounter.

  23. artisticmisfit Avatar

    I think that forcefulness in women is an especially hard character quality to deal with, don’t you?

  24. Petra Avatar

    Father, more about your first lines: “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you.” I love this and even wrote a little blog post on it…I’m wondering if one could say that instead of hating evil, we should turn away from it altogether and instead focus on loving God and our neighbor?…because the saying sure seems true, that we become what we hate. My brother apparently likes this Christian heavy metal band, Demon Hunter. I find their site, esp the pictures of their logo, quite disturbing and sad, actually.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    artisticmisfit – actually, no harder than in men, in my experience.


    I think I would agree with your wording. It’s as if paying attention to the devil is a waste of our time – if we’re doing that instead of paying attention to God.

    Seek first the Kingdom, everything else will be added, is another to say it.

  26. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Fr, but I don’t think its natural for women to be forceful, do you?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar


    In my experience its seems as natural for some women as it is for some men. While unnatural for some men and some women. Although I would not choose the word natural or unnatural to describe it. There’s just a wide variety of personality and character sets that transcend gender such that it’s really impossible to generalize on some things.

  28. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Yeah but don’t ya think that American feminism damaged the American feminine psyche to the point of making her more forceful? That’s really what I am getting at. And I am sorry, but all this talk of wanting God is eluding me. I am neither monastic nor married, and its hard to want God when are you lacking the most basic human relationship to make life function.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar


    I don’t worry too much about American feminism. It’s a movement that will have had both good and bad effects and will pass into history like its many predecessors. God abides.

    When the most basic human relationship to make life function is missing, what is left to us but God? Care cares for the widow and the fatherless as it says in the Scriptures, and though our modern world “widows” people in different ways, the effect is just as devastating as sometimes worse. But it seems to me that God has long been precisely focused on such vulnerabilities in our lives. If I can’t pray when I’m “unhealthy” then I would have to spend most of my life not praying.

    I am having to learn how to pray as a sick man, as a sinner, as a Publican. But God doesn’t seem to mind that kind of prayer. It’s the other kind that seems to cause problems. Pray like a woman has had a hard time making life function. God will hear you.

  30. Hartmut Avatar

    May I add a further thought, father:
    It is always the call of God we have to follow in our lifes. There may be the call to monasticism, the call to marriage and maybe as well the call to live at a “widow” in your above mentioned sense. I struggled with this, too. But meantime I come to think that it is not helpful to believe that a monk or a nun had decided to live celibate but I as “widower” am forced to. To think so causes discontentment, even resentment against God. If God has chosen this way as a “widower” for me, then it will be the best way for me. Sure, as a “widower” I have to fast in a certain way. But a monk or nun and even a married one has to do so in another way.
    So I have to find my “Yes” to Gods way for me and that in a “act of self-giving, the passionate love for Christ and for spiritual things.”
    “What makes a person saintly is love – the adoration of Christ which cannot be expressed, which is beyond expression, which is beyond… And such a person attempts to undertake ascetic exercises and to do things to cause himself to suffer for the love of God.”
    May this come true for me and for all of us.

  31. Michelle Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I was googling St. Porphyrios’ thoughts on fasting and came across your article. Maybe you can help me; I was surprised to see St. Porphyrios also said this, “It’s not food or favourable living conditions that ensure our health. It’s a holy life, the life of Christ. I know ascetics who fasted very strictly and never had anything wrong with them. Nobody risks getting ill from fasting. Nobody’s ever done so.”

    I thought St. Porphyrios had to adjust his fasting practices at some point because he was repeatedly becoming ill? Or maybe I am thinking of another Saint.

    Also I recently learned St. John Chrysostom ended up with kidney failure and stomach problems from the extremes of his fasting and had to adjust his practices.

    Anyway, I am questioning all of this because fasting makes me feel ill, which if I were otherwise healthy I would just say, oh well, I can can feel ill for a few weeks; but I am not otherwise healthy. I had a rare blood condition, that is technically a slow progressing malignancy. So when I feel ill from fasting it kind of scares me, so I don’t really follow the fast hardly at all. But not following the fast bothers me a great deal too.

    But anyway, I’m having a hard time with what I’ve quoted St. Porphyrios saying here, that fasting doesn’t cause health issues. It seems like for him he had to relax the fast for health reasons, and so did St. John Chrysostom. Chrysostom’s problems seemed to have been directly related to his extreme ascetical practices.

    Anyway, thank you for any reflections you may have on this. I read your blog often, for more than a few years now, and greatly appreciate your writings. They’ve been very helpful to me through the years.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would, if possible, let your concern about St. Porphyrios’ thoughts on fasting go. From time to time we run into quotes from saints that simply have to be overlooked for various reasons.

    Adjusting fasting because of health issues has always been a practice in the Church and one that, should you need to do so, shouldn’t trouble you.

    Bad health itself, if born with patience, is a profound fast in and of itself.

  33. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. My own Priest said the same a while back when I told him my concerns too. I appreciate your taking time to help, thank you.

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