Faith and Fasting

In our world of Christian variation, it is easy for some to think of things like fasting as though they were “works” and somehow opposed to grace (if you had a radical protestant understanding of these matters). The truth, however, is quite different. Actions such as fasting are grouped under the general heading of “asceticism” in Orthodoxy, from a Greek word which means to “wrestle.”

Quite interestingly, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, working from very traditional sources, notes that the very first work of “asceticism” is, in fact, to believe in God. This faith, he notes, is impossible except it be given us by grace. He particularly talks about the grace of Baptism, but he does not limit the work of God’s grace to Baptism only.

I found it interesting to think of belief in God as the very first work of asceticism, and I noted that it was true in my own experience. Fr. Staniloae said that it was a work, both of the intellect and of the will. Not one or the other, but both. Thus it becomes a work really of our whole person – believing in God.

Frequently it is far more than an idea (thus it is not just intellection) but is also an action, a direction in which we have thrown our lives (will). It is not one without the other, though for some one might seem more dominant than the other. But that it is the first of all acts of asceticism, the first action we take in the war with the passions is of great interest to me. It says that first off, everyday, before I have done anything else, I must believe in God. It is not something to be taken for granted, but something to be exercised.

For myself it often means to exercise myself in prayer, to struggle to avoid the very earliest temptations of the day. I find it helpful to include in my earliest prayers of the day, the recitation of the Creed. I believe in this God!

It is good as well to add our thanks to our belief in God, for the God whom we believe, is also a good God who has preserved us for another day and brought us closer to Himself and union with Him.

Part of the battle to believe in God is the battle against “prelest,” that is, the slothful neglect of our salvation. It may be that we say to ourselves that “sure I believe in God,” but to have said it such a way that it hardly matters – when it should matter more than anything we say in the day. To believe in God can never be a half-hearted thing. I believe in God, help, Thou, mine unbelief! This is full-hearted.

I must also recognize that as this is an act of ascesis, I must have mercy on all around me who are struggling with this same thing. Some struggle well and some struggle poorly. But I need not judge the quality of their struggle, only to pray that their struggle bear fruit.

Believe in God. It is the first of all things.

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.





11 responses to “Faith and Fasting”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is of my son and a friend during our visit to England a year or so ago. The joy of my children is a constant reinforcement of my belief in God. May He bless them and keep them.

  2. Fellow Sojourner Avatar
    Fellow Sojourner

    This, I believe, was the unarticulated cry of my heart when I was an evangelical but it was unacceptable (or at least I never felt like I would be accepted) to articulate any unbelief. My faith is deep but I also acutely know my wrestling with unbelief. I hope to know a spiritual father that will help me to wrestle without judging. I think, and am hopeful, that Orthodoxy may be the only place I may find this.

    Thank you, father, for you blog.

    Lord, I believe. Help, Thou, my unbelief.

  3. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this encouragement!

  4. […] I didn’t know the etymological origin of asceticism was wrestling. […]

  5. eneubauer Avatar

    Refreshing…I love this post and its contents. Recently, I visited some friends who made their first vows (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal). The director of this class described the word he ascribed to this class of Friars. His word was CONVERSION. He talked about our need to have a “daily” conversion – which I am linking with your statements to a daily re-commitment to Christ / our Salvation. You are right – the first thing we ought to do is remember where our salvation comes from and then attempt to recommit ourselves (wholeheartedly) to Him. In my humble opinion these actions linked with prayer, meditation, daily readings and faithful actions help us to grow into union with Christ – which is my personal goal. I fall – but as of today I have gotten back up and asked Him to save me again. Today I have heard the Shepards voice.

    In all humility – if your theology is challenged by these statements do a careful reading of Paul.

    Thanks Father Stephen…

  6. Raffi Shahinian Avatar

    Thank you for this. Though I come from a different tradition, I have recently become intrigued with the issues you raise here. In fact, I have posted about the things that I discovered during my first experience with fasting, an experience that was invaluable. I hope that it does its small part to encourage those within my own tradition to heed the call when it comes.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  7. Deb Seeger Avatar

    Fasting and Faith takes on an attitude of YOUR will not mine, oh God. What an awesome thing to wrestle our flesh to line up with His. In a world filled with me, mine and ours -praise almost becomes unobtainable without wrestling. It is my conviction we are not to run to the hills, hiding from life in order be free of wrestling but to seek His face wherever we are. We forget that he desires mercy and the goal of His instruction is love not punishment. Isaiah 49:16 says See, I have engraved you upon the palm of My hand…” Putting it into 2008 language without sounding too gutterish, We are inked or tattooed on the palm of His hand: engraving is a branding/burning where tattooing is a mere inking that fades so the parallel breaks down. Yet, we are always with Him and before Him and it is not to separate us into a life of deprivation but one of love. Therefore, as you say Father Stephen we are exercising our free will, to wrestle against the clamoring of daily life to hear Him, to hear His love for us so that we can have mercy on those who deserve no mercy.

    In the States, which are increasingly becoming harder economically, the daily struggles scream and holler making it difficult to hear the still quite voice of our Savior. I often listen to those clamors. Example: instead of having mercy on immigrants’ rights my hardened heart desires them to be gone. When I am unfairly treated, I want to slap the person and scratch their eyes out. I wish evil on those who abuse me instead of blessing those who curse me. So for me weekly fasting facilitates a brief moment when I can refocus on being kind, having mercy, patience, gentleness, and self-control. The wrestling is not just praises to our King but to live as if He were here, living through me….a broken vessel full of ambition, driven with self-preservation and a concern with self. As you say, choosing praises to the King, enables us to hear more clearly.

  8. Ron Avatar

    Is the Staniloae reference from Orthodox Spirituality by STS Press? Can you provide a page number? Thanks!

  9. NeoChalcedonian Avatar

    Either I take on the struggle of having full-faith in God or I allow that faith to be relocated to something else, to the enjoyment of something created. Fasting takes the images of created things out of the heart and places them into the mind.

  10. zoe Avatar

    I thank God that as an Orthodox Christian I can fast and do other “good works” without feeling that I may, somehow, be “earning my way to heaven”. The Orthodox Church, indeed, possesses the fullness of the Christian Faith, as you have said many times. Through the Orthodox Church I’m beginning to integrate my fragmented understanding of grace, faith and work as these relate to salvation.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this timely post.

  11. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I hope I’m not being presumptuous, and if I am, please forgive me. I intend to be helpful.

    After reading your comment today, your words have been on my mind. I was looking up something on Father Stephen’s blog regarding Dumitru Staniloae, and while doing so, I came upon this article. When I read it, I thought of you. Again, please forgive me if this is misplaced and ill-conceived.

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