What Is Fasting, Really?
At Holy Baptism, we are cleansed of our sins and joined to Christ. Sadly, most of us--well, make that all of us--don't stop sinning at this point. In fact, we tend to struggle with the same sins over and over again.
So what was Christ getting at when he commanded us, "You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48)? Happily, in His next breath, He lays out three spiritual disciplines that will help us toward perfection--almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-4), prayer (v.5-15), and fasting (v.16-18). Fasting, especially, is the key to self-control and conforming our will to that of God. In short, fasting is a spiritual tool to make us stronger to resist sinning.
How Does Fasting Make a Difference?
Fasting strengthens our will in general, so that we may more powerfully and effectively resist the sins that plague us. When we deny ourselves certain foods and creature comforts, our spirit--or our will--is telling our flesh, "No!" Our stomach growls with hunger, but we say, "I've decided to skip lunch today." We get a late-night craving for a bowl of ice cream, but we say, "I am not eating dairy products during the Fast." It's the night of our favorite TV program, but we say, "I made a commitment to skip this show until the Fast ends, and I'm sticking to it."
As we consistently and repeatedly deny ourselves relatively simple fleshly pleasures (things which in and of themselves are good), over time we teach our will to say "no." When we exercise our will, it grows stronger, and our "no" becomes more and more emphatic. Eventually, we find ourselves saying "no" to our sinful passions as well. Training our will to deny relatively mild passions causes it to grow stronger so as to resist the stronger temptations to sin.
Above all, understand that fasting makes a difference in our lives because of God working in us. If fasting were only about our own efforts, it would be useless. God's role in fasting is why coupling fasting with prayer and almsgiving is so essential.
Am I Guaranteed Results?
God's "diet plan" comes with no money-back guarantee, but the testimonies of millions of Christians through the ages, right up to today, cannot be denied. Having worked at fasting for several years now, I can honestly say that I can see and feel the difference it makes in me spiritually. The saints are clear on the importance and effectiveness of fasting:
"When a king plans to capture an enemy's city, he first of all stops its supply of provisions. Then its citizens, pressed by hunger, submit to him. Something similar happens with carnal desires: If a person will spend his life in fasting and hunger, then improper desires will fade away." --Blessed John Kolov
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that requires hard work. There is no magic. Above all, we must remember that the effectiveness of fasting--as with all spiritual endeavors--rests not with our own effort, but with the grace of God working in us.
Let us, therefore, pick up this godly weapon with joy and put it to good use in our war against sin and take courage that the perfection to which our Lord calls us is more attainable.