As Father David (mentioned previously) put it, to stop doing things you ought not do is not fasting, it is simply good behavior. Fasting is giving up good things. That distinction is important in part because we need to be reminded that the world, indeed our world, is a gift from God to us. As James says, “every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights.”
No doubt, laying aside vices and bad habits is an important spiritual discipline. Any Lenten discipline that leads us to recognize our brokenness and repent our sinfulness is a good thing…even if all too often we reclaim that vice during Easter.
But fasting is something different. In a fast we lay aside good gifts. We are not Gnostics who despise the body and the world nor Buddhists who disdain appetites as if God created them by mistake. We are Christians who recognize God’s grace in giving us so many good things.
God’s first interaction with the newly created humanity was to “bless them” (Gen. 1:28). He gave us each other including sexual and relational intimacy as the founding principle of the family (“be fruitful and multiply” & “fill the earth” v. 28). He gave us a vocation (“subdue it, and have dominion…over every living thing” v. 28). He gave us food (“I have given every plant…you shall have them for food” v. 29). All these imply that he gave us our appetites and desires that such gifts fulfill.
Furthermore, our sin did not make all these things suddenly bad. We are told throughout the scripture of the goodness of God revealed in His gifts. In His grace he continues to give good gifts. Children are a heritage from the Lord. He who finds a wife finds a good thing. God’s people are promised at various times physical health and financial prosperity. We see in the law various feasts prescribed as part of worship and even wine and “strong drink” (Duet. 14:26) as part of celebrations for God’s people. The prophetic vision for the final Kingdom of God in the world includes the restoration of each person “under his own vine” (Micah 4:4).
Jesus inspires messianic hopes by feeding the multitude and healing the sick. He turned water to wine at a wedding…the best wine, and at the very end of his earthly ministry he instituted eating as a central part of worship in the new covenant. In fact, many times he reveals himself to his disciples as the bodily resurrected Lord in a way that involves eating. More than once they “recognize him in the breaking of bread.”
Still as we remember with Saint Paul that God gives us “things richly to enjoy,” we must recognize our tendency to forget the giver of those things. He, the self giving God, is the greatest gift. We as broken and weak people often ignore that gift. And we ignore it to our own hurt for we do not live by bread alone, but by the very word of God. He himself is the source of our life, and apart from Him we have no life in us.
Therefore, while we know from Paul that mere abstention for its own sake is pointless (Col. 2:23), we should also recognize that God gives us yet one more gift, the grace of fasting. Christ gave the example (Matthew 4) and the teaching (Matthew 6) that allows us to abstain from good gifts so that we might remember Him, the giver of gifts and true source of life. And the church in her God-given wisdom has instituted seasons of fasting so that we might participate more fully in the greatest gift of God’s grace. Him only.