When I speak with people about fasting in general, but especially about the Great Fast, I always discourage the concept of “giving something up for Lent” mainly because it has a self-orientation rather than heavenly. When you practice the give something up for Lent model, you are basically saying, “I will choose my own fast. I will choose my own rules. I will choose my own faith.” That lies in total contrast to Christ’s invitation to, “Deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34)
Let’s look at this a little deeper. Fasting is a spiritual discipline through which we learn to control our passions. Our bodies are the only thing over which we have total control, and our bodies in cooperation with our soul are united in a journey toward Theosis, which is what we call our union with God. We control what goes into our bodies and what comes out. Since we are body AND soul, the only way to bring one element closer to God is to bring the other. Another way of thinking is to consider fasting as practice over our bodies. Say no to meat (and dairy, fish, oil and wine), then it will be easier to say no to sin.
But why do I advise against choosing your own fast? Couldn’t you just as easily learn to discipline your body if you give up chocolate for Lent? While you could still get some benefit, the part that is lacking is how to train your will to align with God’s will. When you continue to exert your will over your fasting, you gain only a portion of the benefit of fasting. It isn’t totally without merit, but why not welcome the greatest benefit? Why not include training your will while also training your body?
Here’s is an example. If you can’t allow the Church to guide your eating, how can you allow the Church to guide your morality? Truth is, many do not. Many people openly disregard the teachings of the Church as archaic or unneeded, and “most” of the time these are the same people to either do not fast or refuse to fast as the Church teaches. It shouldn’t come as a surprise since there wasn’t the full benefit of the fast.
Here’s is another example. A young child attend Sunday School year after year and learns about the importance of fasting, but every Wednesday and Friday the family eats hamburgers for dinner. By chance the child grows into a troubled teenager experimenting with drugs etc. The parents beg the Church to convince the child to change ways. The only problem is the parents already taught the child to ignore the Church every Wednesday and Friday. It simply is too late.
I believe this prayer from the PreSanctified Liturgy expresses the beauty that we can embrace in fasting during Great Lent. Hope you enjoy the journey!
Almighty Lord, You have created all things in wisdom. In Your inexpressible providence and great goodness You have brought us to these saving days, for the cleansing of our souls and bodies, for control of our passions, in the hope of the Resurrection. After the forty days You delivered into the hands of Your servant Moses the tablets of the law in characters divinely traced. Enable us also, O benevolent One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast, to keep the faith inviolate, to crush underfoot the heads of unseen tempters, to emerge victors over sin and to come, without reproach, to the worship of Your Holy Resurrection. For blessed and glorified is Your most honorable and majestic name, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forevermore.