Why We Fast

vm354Fasting is not very alive and well in the Christian world. Much of that world has long lost any living connection with the historical memory of Christian fasting. It is as though they were Jews who heard there was such a thing as kosher and decided to make up the rules for what to eat and what not to eat because no one knew what was actually kosher.

There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to almost meaningless self-sacrifice.

I read recently (though I cannot remember where) that the rejection of Hesychasm was the source of all heresy. In less technical terms we can say that knowing God in truth, participating in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything, is the purpose of the Christian life. Hesychasm (Greek Hesychia=Silence) is the name applied to the Orthodox tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness.

But these are incorrectly understood if they are separated from knowledge of God and participation in His life, union with Him through humility, prayer, love of enemy and repentance before all and for everything. 

And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who “fasted well.” Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.

Why do we fast? Perhaps the more germane question is “why do we eat?” Christ quoted Scripture to the evil one and said, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” We eat as though our life depended on it and it does not. We fast because our life depends on the word of God.

I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain. During that time, daily sitting at the side of the beds of dying patients – I learned a little about how we die. It is a medical fact that many people become “anorexic” before death – that is – they cease to want food. Many times family and even doctors become concerned and force food on a patient who will not survive. Interestingly, it was found that patients who became anorexic had less pain than those who having become anorexic were forced to take food. (None of this is about the psychological anorexia that afflicts many of our youth. That is a tragedy)

It is as though at death our bodies have a wisdom we have lacked for most of our lives. It knows that what it needs is not food – but something deeper. The soul seeks and hungers for the living God. The body and its pain become a distraction. And thus in God’s mercy the distraction is reduced.

Christianity as a religion – as a theoretical system of explanations regarding heaven and hell, reward and punishment, is simply Christianity that has been distorted from its true form. Either we know the living God or we have nothing. Either we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. The rejection of Hesychasm is the source of all heresy.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.

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.





32 responses to “Why We Fast”

  1. Katia Avatar

    “… relationship between Orthodoxy and religion.
    It is a fact that, after the first few centuries [of Christianity],
    our Faith has also been characterized as a religion. But in what
    sense is it a religion?
    Plutarch equates religion with worship. Orthodoxy certainly
    does involve worship, but it is not a mere “community of wor-
    ship.” It is a Church and the Body of Christ.
    Nowhere in the New Testament is the Church characterized
    as a religion, but rather as a “way,” (Acts 9:2); that is, as a path
    and way of life, which leads to union with Christ, to deification.
    The ultimate “way” is Christ Himself (St. John 14:62). We fast because Jesus Christ did.

  2. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, This post is such a blessing. Thank you!

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed. That we might know Him in all things and be conformed to Him in all things. Indeed.

  4. Sean Avatar

    “Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and in dying we can be born to eternal life.”

    That has got to be one of the most true and wonderful thoughts I have ever set my eyes (and mind, and heart) upon. Thank you Father!

  5. Fr. Christian Mathis Avatar

    “I have seen greater good accomplished in souls through their failure in the fasting season than in the souls of those who ‘fasted well.’ Publicans enter the kingdom of God before Pharisees pretty much every time.”

    This is wonderful Father. My pastor and I have told our parishioners this Lent that our hope is for every person in the parish to fail in their Lenten efforts. We hope they will fail in accomplishing good by themselves, so that God will succeed and grant even greater good.

    By the way, is that St. Sabba? It’s the only chapel I remember that has that many skulls.

    Fr Christian

  6. handmaidleah Avatar

    this is one to pass along…

  7. David S. Avatar

    Thank you for an excellent post, Father. I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to quote some of it. Some friends and I started a blog where we support each other during the fast and share our thoughts. Your words would be a tremendous addition and encouragement.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    David S.,

    Feel free.

  9. Tom (St. Louis) Avatar
    Tom (St. Louis)

    Excellent Father, thank you so much for these words!

  10. Moses Avatar

    Thank you Father! =D

  11. Mike Avatar

    We are by nature created hungry. It is a hunger for God. Fasting teaches us to follow rather than satisfy our hunger.

    A beautiful insight on anorexia at death – thank you.

    Peace, Mike

  12. Mina Avatar

    Father Stephen, would you please explain exactly what you mean by “fasting,” and exactly what you mean by “failure in the fasting season”? Thank you!

  13. Emma Avatar

    Hey I love this blog. I can see the time and effort put into this.. Thanks!

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    In Orthodox parish practice, we abstain from meat, fish, wine, dairy and olive oil on all the days of Great Lent, throughout the year on Wednesdays and Fridays, for the 40 days prior to Christmas, from a week after Pentecost until the feast of Peter and Paul on June 29, and for the 2 weeks prior to the Feast of the Dormition in August. Altogether we fast more days than not.

    Monastics keep the fast yet more strictly. Some, not eating until after sundown, some eating no cooked food.

    We always eat less than “full” when we are fasting, which keeps a slight edge of hunger.

    This was once a pretty universal way of keeping these fasts, including within Rome. Protestants largely quit the traditional fast and forgot how to fast (mostly eating nothing when they do fast, which is not sustainable for long) and has been so frequently mitigated by the canonical changes in Roman Catholicism that it no long looks like the Traditional fast.

    But that is generally how we fast. And how the fast has been kept since some of the earliest years of the Church.

    By “failure” in the fasting season, I mean that one sometimes fails to fast as is prescribed by the Church for various reasons. Failing is good for humility and can be very beneficial.

  15. Cheryl Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this wonderful post.

  16. […] 1 March, 2009 by rwp Father Stephen: Why We Fast […]

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you. I have been Orthodox for over 20 years and this is the first explanation of fasting that has made sense to me.

    Thank you.

  18. Katia Avatar

    In the words of St John Chrysostom, it means ‘abstinence not only from food but from sins’. The fast, he insists, ‘should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands, and all the members of the body’ : the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.

  19. MaryGail Avatar

    Food, comfort and the Comforter

    As a new Orthodox I have been impressed with the power of fasting. Food can be used as a form of unhealthy comfort, something that covers over emotions, something that “stuffs down” problems. Peeling back that blanket of food comfort reveals wounds and pain underneath. If we address those wounds and pains, confess sins and mend relationships then we can make spiritual progress. I think therefore, fasting can make us more sensitive to spiritual matters and less distracted by the physical.

    I think that God wants to be our sole Comforter, as in the Triparion prayer and as in the Holy Spirit. He wants us to look to Him for comfort and help and sustenance first.

  20. NeoChalcedonian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have a historical question; is the forty day fast an apostolic tradition? I heard that it was but do not know where to look to find out. I know that the “skeleton” of many liturgical practices are apostolic.

  21. Mina Avatar

    Thank you for your reply, Father Stephen. I’m a lifelong Orthodox Christian (56 years) and am therefore familiar with the list of foods the abstention from which the Church dubs “fasting.” I asked what you in particular mean by “fasting” because I wondered whether, when you wrote that “we fast so that we may live like a dying man” (which strikes me as an excellent explanation), you were referring merely to the avoidance of the proscribed foods, or whether you had a broader concept in mind.

    It’s an important question to me because I’m perpetually praying to discern a correct way to follow the spirit (or rationale), rather than the letter, of the Church’s fasting rule. If I (and many others, no doubt) were simply to adhere to the letter of the rule, I’d do absolutely nothing at all: I haven’t eaten any animal products for nearly 35 years; I don’t eat oil because a low-fat diet is more palatable to me; and if I drink wine, it’s a glass of champagne at a wedding every few years. This is not ascetic, pious, or health-conscious behavior on my part, by the way; it merely seems preferable and reasonable to me.

    Generally, my own fasting regimen comprises cutting nightly sleep by one hour; cutting daily caloric intake by 10% (my diet is already comparatively low in calories, and I’m a petite woman); restricting hot water use (I take only cold showers); walking the two miles between work and home every day rather than driving or riding the bus; maintaining silence instead of expressing my opinions, etc., none of which is “meaningless self-sacrifice” to me, by any means. And certainly, these personal hardships weaken me, constantly remind me of my utter sinfulness, and redirect my attention away from myself and the world and toward life in and with God. But I can’t imagine how they could possibly allow my heart to break!

    So, I ask: Is this failure in fasting? How can I live like a dying man? What can I do to allow my heart to break?

  22. katia Avatar

    Hi Mina,

    To die (dying man) to sin, and to rise with our souls from dead works,to enrich ourselves with virtues

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    Probably more prayer. It is ultimately something to discuss with your confessor/spiritual father. When an acquaintance of mine had difficulty with the food fast (allergies) in Russia, his priest simply assigned him more prayers. Our heart breaks because we cannot do what we set out to do. We want God, and can’t seem to have what we want. Thus like a lover whose beloved is away on a trip, our heart breaks. And He comes to us. We receive Him gladly because He is the answer to the longing of our broken heart.

  24. Mary Avatar

    Yesterday, Clean Monday, I did not make prostrations, I did not complete my daily prayers, I did not read the Bible, I did not go to church. I might say I kept the fast, but only because I was too sick to drink or eat. I slept, crawled to the bathroom, and slept again. I can’t claim to have suffered in silence. I remember whining and then remembering to say “Glory be to Your righteous judgement.” Every time I woke up, I would cross myself and say the Jesus prayer, but only because of training and habit. Indeed, I could not do what I set out to do. All I could do was wait.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s a very hard fast, Mary.

  26. un pic Avatar

    Excuse my bad english. I’m from Romania.

    I want to know something about this picture.
    Who did it? When? Where? Is it real?

    Thank you. 🙂

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is real, and is from Mt. Athos. It is the bones of martyrs and departed monks.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    un pic

    It is from Mt. Athos. It is one of their “bone houses” with skulls from departed monks.

  29. Mina Avatar

    Ah, I see. I was thinking of a permanently broken heart, an ultimate shattering. Now I understand that you meant something akin to a petulant breaking heart, one that is temporarily discontent because it can’t have what it wants. This makes more sense in the context of your post; thank you for clarifying.

    Confessors are few and far between because of my geographical remoteness, and spiritual fathers are few and far between because…spiritual fathers are few and far between. 😉 But I’ll take your advice to (unbroken) heart and persevere. Thanks again!

  30. un pic Avatar

    Thank you for answer. 🙂

  31. […] Freeman: Why we Fast Last week, Fr. Stephen Freeman posted an excellent Lenten reflection: Why We Fast. Here is an excerpt: And it is the same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) […]

  32. fatherstephen Avatar


    Do Lutherans fast? I couldn’t tell from the quote from the Larger Catechism.

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