Editor’s note: The following essay was originally published in the February 2000 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and was later posted on Ignatius Insight. The author, Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B., has been Abbott of St. Procopius Abbey in St. Louis, Missouri, since June 2010.
We still ask ourselves as Ash Wednesday approaches, “What am I doing for Lent? What am I giving up for Lent?” We can be grateful that the customs of giving up something for Lent and abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent have survived in our secular society. But, unfortunately, it is doubtful that many practice them with understanding. Many perform them in good faith and with a vague sense of their value, and this is commendable. But if these acts of self-denial were better understood, they could be practiced with greater profit. Otherwise, they run the risk of falling out of use.
A greater understanding of the practice of self-denial would naturally benefit those who customarily exercise it during Lent. Better comprehension of self-denial would also positively affect the way Christians live throughout the year. The importance of self-denial can be seen if we look specifically at fasting and use it as an example of self-denial in general. Indeed, fasting, for those who can practice it, is a crucial part of voluntary self-denial.
But since we live in a consumerist society, where self-indulgence rather than self-denial is the rule, any suggestion to fast will sound strange to many ears. It is bound to arouse the questions: Why is fasting important? Why must a Christian practice it? Using these questions as a framework, we can construct one explanation, among many possible ones, of the importance of self-denial.
To answer the question “Why must the Christian fast?” we should first note that fasting, in itself, is neither good nor bad, but is morally neutral. But fasting is good insofar as it achieves a good end. Its value lies in it being an effective means for attaining greater virtue. And because it is a means for gaining virtue– and every Christian ought to be striving to grow in virtue–there is good reason to fast.
Some people point out that fasting is not the most important thing and, therefore, they do not need to worry about it. Such reasoning displays a misunderstanding of our situation. But, since the excuse is common enough, some comments to refute it are worthwhile.
Doing Small Things Well
First, while it is true that fasting is not the most important thing in the world, this does not make fasting irrelevant or unimportant. There are, certainly, more urgent things to abstain from than food or drink, such as maliciousness, backbiting, grumbling, etc. But a person is mistaken to conclude that he therefore does not need to fast. He should not believe that he can ignore fasting and instead abstain in more important matters. Rather, fasting and avoiding those other vices go hand in hand. Fasting must accompany efforts to abstain in greater matters. For one thing, fasting teaches a person how to abstain in the first place.
Moreover, it is presumptuous for a person to try to practice the greater virtues without first paying attention to the smaller ones. As Our Lord says, “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”  and so can be trusted with greater things. Therefore, if a person wants to be able to abstain in greater matters he must not neglect to abstain in smaller matters, such as through fasting.
Finally, there is a subtle form of pride present in the person who says that because something is not very important, he does not need to do it. Whoever makes such a claim implies that he does only important things. But the average person is rarely called to do very important things. Accordingly, each person is more likely to be judged on how he did the little, everyday things. Even when, rarely, a person is called to do a great work, how often does he fall short? All the more reason, then, for a person to make sure that he at least does the small things well. Furthermore, if he truly loves the Lord, he will gladly do anything–big or small–for him. So, in the end, saying that fasting is not the most important thing is not a good excuse for avoiding it.
What, then, is the reason for fasting? To answer this let us first clarify what fasting entails. It involves more than the occasional fast, such as on Good Friday. To be effective, fasting requires disciplined eating habits all the time. There are certainly days when a person should make a greater effort at abstaining from food and drink. These are what we usually consider days of fasting and they must be practiced regularly. But, still, there are never days when a person is allowed to abandon all restraint. A person must always practice some restraint over his appetites or those periodic days of fasting arc valueless. Always keeping a check on his desires, a person develops good habits, which foster constancy in his interior life. So, in addition to practicing days of fasting on a regular basis, a person should continuously restrain his desires, such as those that incline him to eat too much, to be too concerned with what he eats, or to eat too often. 
We might, then speak of the discipline of fasting in order to avoid the impression that fasting is sporadic. The operative principle behind the discipline of fasting is simple: to limit yourself to only what is necessary for your physical and psychological health–no more, no less. St. Augustine puts it concisely when he teaches: “As far as your health allows, keep your bodily appetites in check by fasting and abstinence from food and drink.”  So, fasting is meant only to keep a person’s unnecessary wants in check. A person is not– nor is he permitted–to deny himself what is necessary for his health. The discipline of fasting instead asks a person to check his desires for what is superfluous and not necessary.
Realizing True Well-being
Consequently, fasting should not threaten a person’s health. And there is no foundation for believing that fasting is somehow motivated by anti-body sentiments. Fasting actually does good for the body by helping it realize its well-being. The body needs to be in conformity with the spirit and this requires such disciplines as fasting. In this way, the body is like a child. Children would never realize their true well-being if their parents never told them “no,” but gave in to every one of their desires. In the same way, if a person never says “no” to his bodily desires, his body will never realize its true well-being. That is, the body needs such discipline to be brought into conformity with the spirit. For otherwise, it cannot share in the spiritual blessings of Christ.
This makes perfect sense when we consider that the human person is not just a soul, but is matter as well. A person’s body, too, is to be renewed in Christ. Fasting is one way that a person brings about a harmony between body and soul, so that being made whole he can be one with Christ.
The Christian belief that the body is intimately united to the soul should also make a person suspicious of the opinion that fasting is merely external. External acts stem from the desires of the heart within, as Our Lord says in the Gospel.  So, a person’s external acts are linked to his interior desires. The external act of abstaining from food and drink, therefore, clearly affects a person internally. It does not permit his desires within to reach fulfillment. Thus fasting has the ability to keep interior desires in check, which is important for improving a person’s interior life.
It is true, of course, that a person should be more vigilant over his interior life than over his external actions. He must be attentive to interior motives, desires, intentions, to make sure that his fasting is affecting his interior life as it ought–and not giving rise to pride, anger, or impatience.
In fact, only by considering the interior self, and how fasting can affect it, does one see the high value of fasting. If someone looks only at the external act of eating, and does not consider the underlying internal desires of the heart, then the value of fasting cannot be seen. For, clearly, there is nothing wrong with the very act of eating. Nor do the enjoyments of food and the pleasures of eating, as such, harm a person. The joys and comforts of eating are good. Like all created goods, they testify to the goodness of God, who made them. Therefore, the enjoyment of eating and drinking manifests the goodness of God. A person ought to see God’s goodness in the joys of these things, and give God thanks for them.  The enjoyment of food can then actually help lift the mind and heart to God. 
But by lifting a person’s gaze to God, created goods point beyond themselves, to greater joys. Consequently, he who truly enjoys God’s goodness in created things, such as food and drink, will not remain attached to them. Rather, he will go beyond them, readily giving them up, in order to enjoy the higher things, which St. Paul says we must seek. 
Seek What Is Better
This might lead some to ask: If the enjoyment of eating does me no harm, and can in fact manifest God’s goodness, why sacrifice this joy by fasting? That is, why check my unnecessary desires for what is enjoyable? After all, there is nothing wrong with enjoying food. Why, then, if I enjoy having a snack, or eating fine foods, sacrifice these things? Again, they are not bad or sinful.
The answer is: Because it is better. Having a tasty meal prepared just to my liking is good, but it is better to sacrifice such things. Showing why it is better to fast than to neglect fasting will provide the reason why a Christian is expected to fast.
A Christian must be seeking what is better, and not merely trying to avoid what is bad. This is the only way to live a life of continual conversion, to which we are committed by baptism. The Christian must face decisions with the question: “What is the better thing for me to do?” He must not, when he has a decision to make, approach what he is inclined to do with the justification: “Well, there is nothing wrong with doing it.” If that is his approach, then he is not genuinely seeking improvement in his life. Spiritual progress becomes impossible.
Ongoing conversion, to which, again, the Christian must be dedicated, involves going from good to better. This conversion is unreachable for him who in his life refuses to give up the lesser goods in order to attain greater goods. Due to fallen human nature, every person is prone to be complacent. Each of us is reluctant to change his ways. But clearly, if a person has not yet reached perfection, there are certainly greater goods for him to realize. Fasting, in many ways, is simply the choice to give up lesser goods for greater ones, to abstain from the joys of food and drink in order to attain greater joys from God. It seeks for more. If a person ever stops seeking for more, then he has stopped seeking God.
Why is it better to fast than not to fast? Again, we said that the enjoyment of food and drink is good. Enjoying food is not the problem. Fasting does not tell a person not to enjoy eating–I think this is impossible–as much as it says not to seek the enjoyment of eating. A person may take the joys of food as they come, and be grateful for them: but he should not pursue such joys.
True, there are legitimate occasions, such as when entertaining guests, where especially enjoyable foods are procured. But this is done for the sake of hospitality and for lifting up the heart and mind to God in thanksgiving. The joys of food and drink are not sought, consequently, for their own sake but for God’s glory. Thus, the person is not really seeking the joys of eating and drinking, as such: he uses them only to pass beyond them to God. Hence, he who uses the joys of eating and drinking rightly will readily give them up. Because fasting is better than not fasting, he will deny himself these joys regularly. “Looking to the reward,”  moreover, he will not often make the excuse that hospitality, or the “need” to celebrate, requires that he allow himself enjoyable foods. In truth, it is more often the case that self-denial and restraint are called for. 
Obstacles To Grace
So, it is not wrong, in itself, to seek tasty, enjoyable food: but still a person should not do so. For when a person seeks the enjoyment of eating, his action is tainted with inclinations to sloth, complacency, and self-love.  That is, his motives are mixed. For when he seeks the joys of food, selfish inclinations are at work in his heart along with whatever good motives there might be. Now, if a person only looks at the external act of eating or the objective value of enjoying food, he will not see this. But, if he honestly looks into the heart, he will see that sloth, complacency, and self-love are present in the desire for the joys of eating. Having such mixed motives is simply part of our imperfect condition in this world.
These selfish inclinations in a person’s heart, which are present when he seeks the enjoyment of eating, are the sort of things that hinder a person’s growth in holiness and virtue. To grow in holiness and virtue every person needs God’s help–we know that a person cannot do it on his own. As Christ says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  Hence, the help of God’s grace is needed to grow in virtue and to live a life of continual conversion. Yet the presence of these inclinations to sloth, complacency, and self-love get in the way of a person’s reception of God’s grace. They are obstacles to receiving more grace.
Therefore, the Christian, who is dedicated to conversion, must remove these obstacles from his heart, so that he may receive more grace and become a better follower of Christ. A person should not expect God to force his grace on him without his consent. As we know, God chooses to work with a person’s cooperation. And, so, he is obliged to work with God to remove these inclinations from his heart as much as possible.
This is done by fasting. For fasting, by checking a person’s desires for what is not necessary, teaches him to seek what is sufficient when he eats. When he fasts, he does not seek the enjoyment of food, but is simply seeking what he needs to eat and drink. And since he is no longer pursuing the joys of food, the self-centered inclinations that accompany this pursuit are not allowed a chance to spring up in his heart. A person gives up things he enjoys because in so doing he denies inclinations such as sloth, complacency, and self-love a chance to be active in his heart.
Purifying The Heart
This is why it is better to fast. Fasting removes these obstacles so that being more receptive to God’s grace, a person will grow in holiness and virtue. The self-centered inclinations that accompany pleasure-seeking are not directed towards God–therefore, they do not lead the heart to God but away from him. Their presence in the heart creates a divided heart–a heart, which does not completely look to God for its needs. As St. Augustine teaches, a divided heart is an impure heart. 
Purifying the heart, then, will involve denying oneself the pursuits of pleasures in things like food and drink. For thus a person protects his heart from the self-centered inclinations that are bound to coexist with these pursuits.
This provides one answer to the question, “Why must we fast?” (and, by extension, to the question, “Why should one practice self-denial?”). Since, by fasting, a person no longer seeks after the joys of food and drink, the heart is set free to focus more completely on God. By turning away from his concerns for the pleasures of eating, he can turn more wholeheartedly to God. And this, we know is what continual conversion is all about.
By fasting, then, a person turns to God more intently. This is reflected in God’s words spoken through the Prophet Joel: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”  Naturally, a person is reluctant to give up through fasting things he enjoys–but by doing so he turns his attention to God and waits for him. He places his trust in him that he will give him the joy he needs–joys “greater than when grain and wine abound.”  But he has to trust and be willing to persevere through the dry times that will accompany fasting. If he puts his hope in God, however, the Scriptures assure him that he will not be disappointed. 
For the sake of his ongoing conversion, then, the Christian must fast. But we might add another, better reason for fasting. Not only does fasting benefit a person’s own individual spiritual progress, it also benefits his neighbor.
It is commonly pointed out that fasting can help others by allowing those who fast to increase their almsgiving with the money saved from eating less. But the benefit referred to here is of a different sort. It is due to our being connected with each other through prayer, so that a person’s offering of prayer can help others. Now, prayers for others are more effective the more united the person praying is to Christ, since Christ is the source of the benefits gained through prayer. So the more converted a person becomes to the Lord, the more effective his prayers for others: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”  And since fasting aids a person’s continual conversion, it strengthens his prayers so that they benefit others more. In this way, he can help his neighbor through fasting.
Moreover, this service to his neighbor through fasting is an imitation of Christ. He offered himself on the Cross for others. A person too, in union with Christ, offers himself through the sacrifice of fasting. In fasting, he has the opportunity to join Christ in offering himself for the sake of others. Thus, even if a person’s heart were pure and always free from selfish inclinations–as was Christ’s–he should still fast–as did Christ. Through Christ he has the chance of helping others through voluntary acts of self-denial. Christian love is, indeed, eager for such chances to serve others.
So, in a very real way that is clearly visible to the eyes of faith, the Christian must fast out of love of neighbor. He is commanded by Jesus to live in his love.  This love is the love that compels a person “to lay down his life for his friends.”  That is, it is the love that compels him to sacrifice his own preferences and desires on behalf of others. And this is what each person is invited to do through fasting– to give up things he enjoys for the benefit of others. And, as we are told, “there is no greater love than this.” 
There are good reasons then, why a person must practice fasting and develop disciplined eating habits. Fasting and, by extension, self-denial are important for a person’s continual conversion as well as for others who need our prayers. So, the Christian should regularly ask himself, “What do I really need? What can I do without?” and consider the advantages of denying himself even things that are not necessarily bad.
A better understanding of the virtue of denying oneself would undoubtedly benefit our society, where one is taught only how to say, “yes” to what one wants and desires. The practice of self-denial provides a humble yet profound way of giving oneself to God and others out of love, thus breaking the tendency to self-absorption. For, as we have said, self-denial is necessary for helping bring about ongoing conversion, which is sought out of love of God: and one restrains oneself and sacrifices one’s desires out of love of neighbor. Love, then–real liberating, sacrificial love–is behind voluntary self-denial.
 Luke 16:10.
 John Cassian Institutes 5.23.
 Augustine Rule 3.1.
 Luke 6:45.
 1 Tim. 4:3-5.
 The theme of the mind ascending from created goods to God, the Ultimate Good, is common among spiritual writers. The spiritual master, Saint John of the Cross, refers to it in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodrigues, O.C.D., in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross [Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publication, 1979]) 3.24.3-7,3.26.5-7. For a more recent discussion on the subject, see Dietrich von Hildebrand Transformation in Christ (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1963) 192-193.
 Col. 3:1-2.
 Heb. 11:26.
 For further insights into this subject, see Saint John of the Cross, op. cit.
 See Dietrich von Hildebrand In Defense of Purity (New York: Sheed and Ward Inc., 1935) 150-156.
 John 15:5.
 Augustine The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 2.11.
 Joel 2:12.
 Ps 4:8.
 Rom. 5:5: Ps 22:5.
 Jas. 5:16.
 John 15:9.
 John 15:13.
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