Fasting to Obey God, for God-consciousness and for Purification
Fasting is primarily an act of obedience by which we seek to please God. We are asked to fast in every major religion. Since we believe God requires fasting of us, we fast.
However, the reasons for fasting are numerous. Since fasting for God is a personal exercise, we could find a different reason for each fast. In fact, scholars, theologian, sages and saints have enumerated many benefits without exhausting the list.
Fasting as a religious act increases our sensitivity to that mystery always and everywhere present to us. It is an invitation to awareness, a call to compassion for the needy, a cry of distress, and a song of joy. It is a discipline of self-restraint, a ritual of purification, and a sanctuary for offerings of atonement. It is a wellspring for the spiritually dry, a compass for the spiritually lost, and inner nourishment for the spiritually hungry. [Fr. Thomas Ryan].
Fasting kills the desire of the self and the appetite of greed, and from it comes purity of the heart, purification of the limbs, cultivation of the inner and the outer being, thankfulness for blessings, charity to the poor, increase of humble supplication, humility, weeping and most of the ways of seeking refuge in God; and it is the reason for the breaking of aspiration, the lightening of evil things, and the redoubling of good deeds. It contains benefits which cannot be counted. It is enough that we mention some of them to the person who understands and is given success in making use of fasting, if God wills. [Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq, The Lantern of the Path, Fasting].
When we read Scripture, we may read a passage ten times and find a deeper meaning each time. So it is with fasting. As we grow in purity, wisdom and God-consciousness, each fast takes us into deeper understanding.
The following are just nineteen reasons for fasting.
1. Divine Commands to Fast
The Mahabharata, Torah, Gospels and Qur’an prescribe fasting as a religious practice.
The man who teaches another the merit of fasts have never to suffer any kind of misery. The ordinances about fasts, in their due order, O son of Kunti, have flowed from the great Rishi Angiras. The man who daily reads these ordinances or hears them read, becomes freed from sins of every kind. Not only is such a person freed from every calamity, but his mind becomes incapable of being touched by any kind of fault. Such a person succeeds in understanding the sounds of all creatures other than human, and acquiring eternal fame, become foremost of his species. [Mahabharata, Book 13, Section CVI].
The LORD said to Moses, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the LORD . . . This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. [Leviticus 23:26-32 (NIV)].
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. [Matthew 9:15 (NIV) ].
He [Jesus] does not . . .expressly enjoin either fasting, giving of alms, or prayer; but his directions how to fast, to give alms, and to pray, are of the same force with such injunctions. For the commanding us to do anything thus, is an unquestionable command to do that thing . . . Consequently, the saying, “Give alms, pray, fast” in such a manner, is a clear command to perform all those duties . . . [John Wesley, Sermon 27, Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount].
. . . when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. [Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV)].
O YOU who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God: [Quran 2:183].
2. Spiritual Awareness and God-consciousness
Perhaps the most esoteric and wondrous purpose for fasting is to come nearer to God. Though our stomachs and bank accounts may be full, we can still experience an insatiable spiritual appetites that cannot be quenched by transient pleasures and possessions.
Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven . . . And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things. [St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises].
Something in the process of spiritual fasting elevates our consciousness, carrying us into closer relationship with the Divine Reality, and providing an extraordinarily satisfying encounter with God.
As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul. Imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life. [St. John Chrysostom].
3. Purification of the Soul
Excessive indulgence in worldly pleasures increases irreverent frivolity, disregard of sacred matters, and forgetfulness of our deeper aspirations.
The right practice of abstinence is needful not only to the mortification of the flesh but also to the purification of the mind. For the mind then only keeps holy and spiritual fast when it rejects the food of error and the poison of falsehood. [St. Leo the Great].
. . . every wise man will refrain his soul, and keep it low; will wean it more and more from all those indulgences of the inferior appetites, which naturally tend to chain it down to earth, and to pollute as well as debase it. Here is another perpetual reason for fasting; to remove the food of lust and sensuality, to withdraw the incentives of foolish and hurtful desires, of vile and vain affections. [John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on The Mount“].