Fasting is an essential and important discipline for Orthodox Christians. We find the importance of fasting taught by Moses, the Prophets, Jesus Himself, His Apostles, Church Fathers, Church Canons, and reaffirmed in the recent Great Synod of the Church.
The reason it is so important is that it is an essential exercise to strengthen the soul, the will to do God’s will.
Fasting is aimed at control of one of the most powerful bodily passions, hunger. What is it like when you hunger? We say we have hunger pangs. This pain in our stomach moves us to eat something. When we deny this pain or desire, what part of us is acting? It is our soul, our will. As we engage in this discipline out of our love for God and our intense desire to do His will, our soul becomes more capable of controlling the passions of the body that keep us from doing so. As we fast with faith and love of God we attract divine Grace that nurtures our soul and makes it stronger to do His will. Our connection with God is strengthened. In this way we become better able to overcome all the passions of our body, not just hunger.
This is why fasting is such an essential spiritual discipline.
In athletics, preparation is necessary to compete. Exercises are required to develop the muscles of the body. The same for the soul. Exercises are needed to develop the will of the soul to do God’s will. It must become strong enough to overcome evil forces and the temptations of our current day culture.
We are all fallen beings and find ourselves separated from God, struggling to regain our soul’s control over the body so we can live in union with Him. Our aim is to be reunited with God with eternal life in His Kingdom. To do so we must overcome our sinful nature and live according to His commandments. But we are like Paul who wonders why it is that he does what he does not want to do, and what he wants to do he does not do. He also says, using athletic analogies, that he must harden his body like a boxer to compete in the struggle he calls Spiritual warfare.
With our intense love of God, our desire to be untied with Him and to do His will, we are taught to fast regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays and participate in four fasting periods during the year.
It is important to see fasting as a positive effort in cooperation with God. It’s a proven means to bring us closer to Him when done out of our love for Him. If you make a commitment to follow the teachings of His Church you will experience how your soul is strengthened by this discipline.
Fasting cannot be seen as a virtue. It is the control of the passions that are virtues. Fasting is only a means necessary to develop virtues with the help of God’s Grace.