Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. [Matthew 6:16-18].
Fasting for God
When fasting for God, you do not fast to achieve fame or worldly distinction, nor to qualify yourself for inclusion in Guinness’ Book of Records. As an act of worship, fasting is not meant to achieve notoriety or call attention to yourself. The state of mind must be appropriately pious and spiritually focused.
The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” [Luke 18:11]
Traditionally, our legal system required that a criminal act be accompanied by a mental awareness of its criminality. Mens rea is the Latin term for “guilty mind.” It supports the notion that “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty.” Thus, the intention is usually overriding – for someone to commit a crime, he must have intended to do so.
Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself” [The Desert Fathers].
A Pharisee who boasts “I fast twice a week,” engages in an endeavor lacking both reverence and spiritual worth.
The effort remains grounded in vanity and the benefits of the fast are dissipated by the transient acclaim he prefers – clearly, not the right intention.
The Fasting Mind
Similarly, forming the proper intention to fast is essential. A forced or unintended abstinence from food does not constitute a fast. Occasionally, you may be so preoccupation with work that you neglect to eat lunch. Your work so held your attention that you did not realize that you had gone all day without eating. You have not fasted, merely forgotten to eat.
An old man was asked, “How can I find God?” He said, “In fasting, in watching, in labours, in devotion, and, above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad through fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all the Psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks: charity and humility” [Apophthegmata Patrum].
Purpose of Fasting
All major religions extol the benefits of fasting, and they also share the view that fasting is never an end in itself. It has no purpose without the intent to please God. Spiritual fasting is only a means of approaching the Creator and should never be an ultimate goal.
A worker takes the trouble to get hold of the instruments that he requires. He does so not simply to have them and not use them. Nor is there any profit for him in merely possessing the instruments. What he wants is, with their help, to produce the crafted objective for which these are the efficient means.
In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection. They are not in themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained to through them [St. John Cassian, Conference One].