Why The Christian Must Deny Himself
A reflection on Lent
We still ask ourselves as Ash Wednesday approaches, "What am I doing
for Lent? What am I giving up for Lent?"
We can be grateful that the
customs of giving up something for Lent and abstaining from meat on Fridays
during Lent have survived in our secular society. But, unfortunately, it is
doubtful that many practice them with understanding. Many perform them in good
faith and with a vague sense of their value, and this is commendable. But if
these acts of self-denial were better understood, they could be practiced with
greater profit. Otherwise, they run the risk of falling out of use.
A greater understanding of the practice of self-denial would naturally
benefit those who customarily exercise it during Lent. Better comprehension of
self-denial would also positively affect the way Christians live throughout the
year. The importance of self-denial can be seen if we look specifically at
fasting and use it as an example of self-denial in general. Indeed, fasting,
for those who can practice it, is a crucial part of voluntary self-denial.
But since we live in a consumerist society, where self-indulgence rather
than self-denial is the rule, any suggestion to fast will sound strange to many
ears. It is bound to arouse the questions: Why is fasting important? Why must a
Christian practice it?
Using these questions as a framework, we can construct
one explanation, among many possible ones, of the importance of self-denial.
To answer the question "Why must the Christian fast?" we should
first note that fasting, in itself, is neither good nor bad, but is morally
neutral. But fasting is good insofar as it achieves a good end. Its value lies
in it being an effective means for attaining greater virtue. And because it is
a means for gaining virtue -- and every Christian ought to be striving to grow
in virtue -- there is good reason to fast.
Some people point out that fasting is not the most important thing and,
therefore, they do not need to worry about it. Such reasoning displays a
misunderstanding of our situation. But, since the excuse is common enough, some
comments to refute it are worthwhile.
Doing small things well
First, while it is true that fasting is not the most important thing in the
world, this does not make fasting irrelevant nor unimportant. There are,
certainly, more urgent things to abstain from than food or drink, such as
maliciousness, backbiting, grumbling, etc.
But a person is mistaken to conclude
that he therefore does not need to fast. He should not believe that he can
ignore fasting and instead abstain in more important matters. Rather, fasting
and avoiding those other vices go hand in hand. Fasting must accompany efforts
to abstain in greater matters.
For one thing, fasting teaches a person how to
abstain in the first place.Moreover, it is presumptuous for a person to try to practice the greater
virtues without first paying attention to the smaller ones. As Our Lord says,
"He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10)
and so can be trusted with greater things.
Therefore, if a person wants to be
able to abstain in greater matters he must not neglect to abstain in smaller
matters, such as through fasting.
Finally, there is a subtle form of pride present in the person who says that
because something is not very important, he does not need to do it. Whoever
makes such a claim implies that he does only important things. But the average
person is rarely called to do very important things. Accordingly, each person
is more likely to be judged on how he did the little, everyday things. Even
when, rarely, a person is called to do a great work, how often does he fall
short? All the more reason, then, for a person to make sure that he at least
does the small things well. Furthermore, if he truly loves the Lord, he will
gladly do anything -- big or small -- for him. So, in the end, saying that
fasting is not the most important thing is not a good excuse for avoiding it.
What, then, is the reason for fasting? To answer this let us first clarify
what fasting entails. It involves more than the occasional fast, such as on
Good Friday. To be effective, fasting requires disciplined eating habits all
There are certainly days when a person should make a greater effort
at abstaining from food and drink. These are what we usually consider days of
fasting and they must be practiced regularly. But, still, there are never days
when a person is allowed to abandon all restraint. A person must always
practice some restraint over his appetites or those periodic days of fasting
are valueless. Always keeping a check on his desires, a person develops good
habits which foster constancy in his interior life.
So, in addition to
practicing days of fasting on a regular basis, a person should continuously
restrain his desires, such as those that incline him to eat too much, to be too
concerned with what he eats, or to eat too often.
We might, then, speak of the discipline of fasting in order to avoid the
impression that fasting is sporadic. The operative principle behind the
discipline of fasting is simple: to limit yourself to only what is necessary
for your physical and psychological health -- no more, no less. St. Augustine
puts it concisely when he teaches: "As far as your health allows, keep
your bodily appetites in check by fasting and abstinence from food and
So, fasting is meant only to keep a
person's unnecessary wants in check. A person is not -- nor is he permitted --
to deny himself what is necessary for his health. The discipline of fasting
instead asks a person to check his desires for what is superfluous and not
Realizing true well-being
Consequently, fasting should not threaten a person's health. And there is no
foundation for believing that fasting is somehow motivated by anti-body sentiments.
Fasting actually does good for the body by helping it realize its well-being.
The body needs to be in conformity with the spirit and this requires such
disciplines as fasting. In this way, the body is like a child. Children would
never realize their true well-being if their parents never told them
"no" but gave in to every one of their desires.
In the same way, if
a person never says "no" to his bodily desires, his body will never
realize its true well-being. That is, the body needs such discipline to be
brought into conformity with the spirit. For otherwise, it cannot share in the
spiritual blessings of Christ.
This makes perfect sense when we consider that the human person is not just
a soul, but is matter as well. A person's body, too, is to be renewed in
Christ. Fasting is one way that a person brings about a harmony between body
and soul, so that being made whole he can be one with Christ.
The Christian belief that the body is intimately united to the soul should
also make a person suspicious of the opinion that fasting is merely external.
External acts stem from the desires of the heart within, as Our Lord says in
the Gospel. So, a person's external acts are linked
to his interior desires.
The external act of abstaining from food and drink,
therefore, clearly affects a person internally. It does not permit his desires
within to reach fulfillment. Thus fasting has the ability to keep interior
desires in check, which is important for improving a person's interior life.
It is true, of course, that a person should be more vigilant over his
interior life than over his external actions. He must be attentive to interior
motives, desires, intentions, to make sure that his fasting is affecting his
interior life as it ought -- and not giving rise to pride, anger, or
In fact, only by considering the interior self, and how fasting can affect
it, does one see the high value of fasting. If someone looks only at the
external act of eating, and does not consider the underlying internal desires
of the heart, then the value of fasting cannot be seen. For, clearly, there is
nothing wrong with the very act of eating. Nor do the enjoyments of food and
the pleasures of eating, as such, harm a person. The joys and comforts of
eating are good. Like all created goods, they testify to the goodness of God,
who made them. Therefore, the enjoyment of eating and drinking manifests the
goodness of God. A person ought to see God's goodness in the joys of these
things, and give God thanks for them.
The enjoyment of food can then actually help lift the mind and heart to God.
But by lifting a person's gaze to God, created goods point beyond
themselves, to greater joys. Consequently, he who truly enjoys God's goodness
in created things, such as food and drink, will not remain attached to them.
Rather, he will go beyond them, readily giving them up, in order to enjoy the
higher things, which St. Paul says we must seek.
"Seek what is better" (Col. 3:1-2)
This might lead some to ask: If the enjoyment of eating does me no harm, and
can in fact manifest God's goodness, why sacrifice this joy by fasting? That
is, why check my unnecessary desires for what is enjoyable? After all, there is
nothing wrong with enjoying food. Why, then, if I enjoy having a snack, or
eating fine foods, sacrifice these things? Again, they are not bad or sinful.
The answer is: Because it is better. Having a tasty meal prepared just to my
liking is good, but it is better to sacrifice such things. Showing why it is
better to fast than to neglect fasting will provide the reason why a Christian
is expected to fast.
A Christian must be seeking what is better, and not merely trying to avoid
what is bad. This is the only way to live a life of continual conversion, to
which we are committed by baptism. The Christian must face decisions with the
question: "What is the better thing for me to do?"
He must not, when
he has a decision to make, approach what he is inclined to do with the
justification: "Well, there is nothing wrong with doing it." If that
is his approach, then he is not genuinely seeking improvement in his life.
Spiritual progress becomes impossible.
Ongoing conversion, to which, again, the Christian must be dedicated,
involves going from good to better. This conversion is unreachable for him who
in his life refuses to give up the lesser goods in order to attain greater
goods. Due to fallen human nature, every person is prone to be complacent. Each
of us is reluctant to change his ways. But clearly, if a person has not yet
reached perfection, there are certainly greater goods for him to realize.
Fasting, in many ways, is simply the choice to give up lesser goods for greater
ones, to abstain from the joys of food and drink in order to attain greater
joys from God. It seeks for more. If a person ever stops seeking for more, then
he has stopped seeking God.
Why is it better to fast than not to fast? Again, we said that the enjoyment
of food and drink is good. Enjoying food is not the problem. Fasting does not
tell a person not to enjoy eating -- I think this is impossible -- as much as
it says not to seek the enjoyment of eating. A person may take the joys of food
as they come, and be grateful for them; but he should not pursue such joys.
True, there are legitimate occasions, such as when entertaining guests, where
especially enjoyable foods are procured. But this is done for the sake of
hospitality and for lifting up the heart and mind to God in thanksgiving. The
joys of food and drink are not sought, consequently, for their own sake but for
God's glory. Thus, the person is not really seeking the joys of eating and
drinking, as such; he uses them only to pass beyond them to God. Hence, he who
uses the joys of eating and drinking rightly will readily give them up. Because
fasting is better than not fasting, he will deny himself these joys regularly.
"Looking to the reward," (Heb. 11:26)
moreover, he will not often make the excuse that hospitality, or the
need to celebrate, requires that he allow himself enjoyable foods.
In truth, it is more often the case that self-denial and restraint are called
Obstacles to grace
So, it is not wrong, in itself, to seek tasty, enjoyable food; but still a
person should not do so. For when a person seeks the enjoyment of eating, his
action is tainted with inclinations to sloth, complacency, and self-love.
That is, his motives are mixed.
For when he seeks the joys of food, selfish
inclinations are at work in his heart along with whatever good motives there
might be. Now, if a person only looks at the external act of eating or the
objective value of enjoying food, he will not see this. But, if he honestly
looks into the heart, he will see that sloth, complacency, and self-love are
present in the desire for the joys of eating. Having such mixed motives is
simply part of our imperfect condition in this world.
These selfish inclinations in a person's heart, which are present when he
seeks the enjoyment of eating; are the sort of things that hinder a personís
growth in holiness and virtue. To grow in holiness and virtue every person
needs God's help -- we know that a person cannot do it on his own. As Christ
says, "Apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)
Hence, the help of God's grace is needed to grow in virtue and to live a life
of continual conversion. Yet the presence of these inclinations to sloth,
complacency, and self-love get in the way of a person's reception of God's
grace. They are obstacles to receiving more grace.
Therefore, the Christian, who is dedicated to conversion, must remove these
obstacles from his heart, so that he may receive more grace and become a better
follower of Christ. A person should not expect God to force his grace on him,
without his consent. As we know, God chooses to work with a person's
cooperation. And, so, he is obliged to work with God to remove these
inclinations from his heart as much as possible.
This is done by fasting. For fasting, by checking a person's desires for
what is not necessary, teaches him to seek what is sufficient when he eats.
When he fasts, he does not seek the enjoyment of food, but is simply seeking
what he needs to eat and drink. And since he is no longer pursuing the joys of
food, the self-centered inclinations that accompany this pursuit are not
allowed a chance to spring up in his heart. A person gives up things he enjoys
because in so doing he denies inclinations such as sloth, complacency, and self
love a chance to be active in his heart.
Purifying the heart
This is why it is better to fast. Fasting removes these obstacles so that,
being more receptive to God's grace, a person will grow in holiness and virtue.
The self-centered inclinations that accompany pleasure-seeking are not directed
towards God -- therefore, they do not lead the heart to God but away from him.
Their presence in the heart creates a divided heart -- a heart which does not
completely look to God for its needs. As St. Augustine teaches, a divided heart
is an impure heart. Purifying the heart, then, will involve denying oneself the pursuits of
pleasures in things like food and drink. For thus a person protects his heart
from the self-centered inclinations that are bound to coexist with these
This provides one answer to the question, "Why must we fast?"
(and, by extension, to the question, "Why should one practice
self-denial?"). Since, by fasting, a person no longer seeks after the joys
of food and drink, the heart is set free to focus more completely on God. By
turning away from his concerns for the pleasures of eating, he can turn more
wholeheartedly to God.
And this, we know, is what continual conversion is all
By fasting, then, a person turns to God more intently. This is reflected in
God's words spoken through the Prophet Joel: "Return to me with all your
heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." (Joel 2:12)
Naturally, a person is reluctant to give up through fasting things he enjoys --
but by doing so, he turns his attention to God and waits for him. He places his
trust in him, that he will give him the joy he needs -- joys "greater than
when grain and wine abound." (Ps. 4:8)
But he has to trust and be willing to persevere through the dry times that will
accompany fasting. If he puts his hope in God, however, the Scriptures assure
him that he will not be disappointed. (Rom. 5:5; Ps 22:5)
For the sake of his ongoing conversion, then, the Christian must fast. But
we might add another, better reason for fasting. Not only does fasting benefit
a person's own individual spiritual progress, it also benefits his neighbor.
It is commonly pointed out that fasting can help others by allowing those
who fast to increase their almsgiving with the money saved from eating less.
But the benefit referred to here is of a different sort. It is due to our being
connected with each other through prayer, so that a person's offering of prayer
can help others. Now, prayers for others are more effective the more united the
person praying is to Christ, since Christ is the source of the benefits gained
through prayer. So the more converted a person becomes to the Lord, the more
effective his prayers for others: "The prayer of a righteous man has great
power in its effects." (Jas. 5:16) And since fasting aids a person's
continual conversion, it strengthens his prayers so that they benefit others
more. In this way, he can help his neighbor through fasting.
Moreover, this service to his neighbor through fasting is an imitation of
Christ. He offered himself on the Cross for others. A person too, in union with
Christ, offers himself through the sacrifice of fasting. In fasting, he has the
opportunity to join Christ in offering himself for the sake of others. Thus,
even if a person's heart were pure and always free from selfish inclinations --
as was Christ's -- he should still fast -- as did Christ. Through Christ he has
the chance of helping others through voluntary acts of self-denial. Christian
love is, indeed, eager for such chances to serve others.
So, in a very real way that is clearly visible to the eyes of faith, the
Christian must fast out of love of neighbor. He is commanded by Jesus to live
in his love. (John 15:9) This love is the love that compels a
person "to lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
That is, it is the love that compels him to sacrifice his own preferences and
desires on behalf of others. And, this is what each person is invited to do
through fasting -- to give up things he enjoys for the benefit of others. And,
as we are told, "there is no greater love than this." (John 15:13)
There are good reasons, then, why a person must practice fasting and develop
disciplined eating habits.
Fasting and, by extension, self-denial are important
for a person's continual conversion as well as for others who need our prayers.
So, the Christian should regularly ask himself, "What do I really need?
What can I do without?" and consider the advantages of denying himself
even things that are not necessarily bad.
A better understanding of the virtue of denying oneself would undoubtedly
benefit our society, where one is taught only how to say "yes" to
what one wants and desires.
The practice of self-denial provides a humble yet
profound way of giving oneself to God and others out of love, thus breaking the
tendency to self-absorbtion. For, as we have said, self-denial is necessary for
helping bring about ongoing conversion, which is sought out of love of God; and
one restrains oneself and sacrifices one's desires out of love of neighbor.
Love, then -- real liberating, sacrificial love -- is behind voluntary
By: Brother Austin G.
Published in the February 2000 issue of The Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Homiletic & Pastoral Review
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